By Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks
Some of the outsiders inspired by last year's protests in Tahrir Square and the power of ordinary Egyptians to oust their long-time dictator expressed surprise when the country's transitional government began in December to target prominent NGOs as agents of foreign (read Western) governments. They shouldn't be. So far, the great lesson of Egypt's ongoing "transition" is that it remains awfully hard for old dogs to learn new tricks.
Egyptian authorities are now prosecuting more than 40 people for operating NGOs without licenses and for receiving "illegal foreign funding." Among the accused are 19 Americans, including the Washington-based International Republican Institute's Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The case is but one example of how far Egypt's revolution has unraveled. A year ago, after Hosni Mubarak's exit, even those Egyptian activists least willing to trust the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) believed that the generals understood that the country could not continue as it had for six decades, that power had to be shared, and that democracy demands much more than the conduct of hastily arranged elections.
The activists, and the rest of the country, watched the generals leap aboard the "January 25 Revolution" bandwagon and salute the struggle's young martyrs. Protesters believed they had an unspoken understanding with SCAF that the military would retain some political influence -- and some of the commercial assets they had amassed over the years -- in exchange for a willingness to pass political power to a pluralist civilian government following a period of transition, to reform state institutions, and to respect the rights of citizens to organize.
In the months that followed, minds changed and understandings evaporated. When the military killed more than two dozen Egyptian Christian activists in October, the illusion was publicly shattered. Clashes between activists and security forces in November and December upped the stakes. As 2011 drew to a close, it became clear that SCAF generals, who first rose to prominence via the intensity of their loyalty to Hosni Mubarak, shared their former leader's authoritarian worldview.
Over the course of 2011, SCAF froze out the protest leaders and struck a separate deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, one that gives various Islamist parties a dominant position in crafting Egypt's domestic policy while leaving the army in charge of foreign policy and key segments of Egypt's economy. Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, won about two-thirds of seats in recent parliamentary elections. The protesters, now marginalized, are becoming more confrontational.
The crackdown on NGOs reveals the understandings that are implicit in the Muslim Brotherhood-SCAF understanding. Credible allegations have emerged that Islamist groups have received foreign funding too, from Gulf Arab countries, but SCAF has taken virtually no action against them. It's the groups that lobby for human rights -- and who have criticized SCAF -- that have been targeted.
If these NGOs have indeed broken laws, they are Mubarak-era laws. SCAF has changed the rules on elections and the formation of political parties, but their unwillingness to tolerate civil society shows the limits of their willingness to change.
The generals' inflexibility bodes ill for Egypt's future. The Brotherhood, eager to finally enjoy a share of formal power, has become the army's enthusiastic partner. But neither group appears to recognize that elections alone will not guarantee stability. Their broader public popularity and the power of state television ensure that, especially outside of Egypt's largest cities, the military and Muslim Brotherhood represent the "silent majority."
But the vocal minority will keep pushing back, and the potential for violence is on the rise.
Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.
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