Pledge of U.S. funds unsettles Egyptians
CAIRO — The Obama administration's latest aid pledge for Egypt has political liberals here questioning the intent of U.S. policy.
“Egypt needs every penny right now,” said Hany Ghoraba, an Egyptian businessman and political writer.
Yet U.S. funds should include “guarantees that this will be used for the freedom of all Egyptian people, not for consolidating the power of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
No such guarantees appear to exist — but a U.S. alliance with the Brotherhood does, according to Ghoraba and others.
And that has convinced one noted Egyptian political activist that Washington “doesn't give a damn about democracy.”
The Brotherhood began in 1928 as an underground movement and has inspired or backed radical groups across the Middle East. Despite moderating its rhetoric in the past year, it maintains a credo that declares “Allah is our objective” and holy war “is our way.”
U.S. officials have requested an infusion of $450 million for Egypt's Brotherhood-led government, part of the $1 billion pledged by President Obama for pro-democracy efforts.
That is in addition to $1.5 billion given annually to Egypt, making it the fifth-largest U.S. aid recipient last year after Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, has blocked the request. The chairwoman of a House foreign aid subcommittee said she is “not convinced of the urgent need” for more funds.
She and others in Congress want a detailed review of Egypt's direction under Brotherhood rule.
Such aid is likely to be an issue in the Oct. 22 presidential debate, which will focus on foreign policy. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has expressed concern about U.S. policy in the turbulent region and said temporary aid “can jolt an economy” but cannot “sustain an economy — not for long.”
Egypt's economy has virtually collapsed since the 2011 fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Tourism, which was the third-largest revenue source, has evaporated; unemployment is officially 12 percent but widely thought to be far higher.
A dubious ally?
With 80 million people, Egypt is the most populous Arab nation and Washington's key Arab ally of three decades. Yet events of the past year cast doubt on its reliability.
Deadly attacks on the country's sizable Christian minority have increased, with many churches and homes burned. Some Brotherhood officials and their allies, the ultra-religious Salafists, have called to limit women's rights and to impose Islamic law on all Egyptians.
A dozen American and other foreign pro-democracy workers face political-meddling charges.
And on Sept. 11, an Egyptian mob stormed the U.S. Embassy, painting al-Qaida slogans on its walls and replacing the American flag with the terrorist group's black banner. That incident sparked weeks of anti-U.S. riots by Muslims here and worldwide.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, a Brotherhood member, waited more than 24 hours to issue a statement that did not condemn the embassy attack or reaffirm U.S.-Egyptian relations.
The Brotherhood denounced it on its English-language website but applauded it in Arabic posts.
Now a popular Egyptian political blogger who writes under the name “Big Pharoah” declares: “With the Obama administration offering aid, it shows the embassy incident has passed.”
U.S. should ‘back off'
Egyptian liberals are very worried about the Brotherhood's sweeping consolidation of power. At a recent anti-Brotherhood rally, writer Magda Mustafa said the Obama administration “encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is a big mistake.”
El Watan, an anti-Islamist newspaper here, headlined a front-page article: “The Brotherhood supports Obama in the American elections and threatens Romney with violence.”
Mahmoud Salem, a longtime political activist and vocal critic of Islamists, wants U.S. officials to “back off.”
“You have an American president who literally doesn't give a damn about democracy in the Middle East,” said Salem, who writes a popular Internet blog under the name “Sandmonkey.”
He speculated that U.S. support for the Brotherhood “has more to do with the Iran conflict, being on good terms with the rising Sunni power in North Africa, and resolving the Israel issue.”
American aid is seen as ensuring Egypt's adherence to a U.S.-brokered 1978 treaty with Israel.
Salem snickers at pro-democracy work by U.S.-funded organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, which is affiliated with the Democratic Party. It has helped train many Egyptian political groups, including the Salafist Nour Party.
“Does the American taxpayer know that NDI trained the Nour Party, whose members want to lower the age-of-consent of girls to be married to 9 years old?” Salem asked.
“What if the Egyptian Nazi Party came to them saying, ‘We need support; we need to organize.' Would they train them in the name of fairness?”
‘Nobody funding liberals'
Fellow blogger Big Pharaoh thinks U.S. policy is as cynical as it ever was.
“The U.S. wants to keep the relationship with the leader of Egypt, whether it is Mubarak or the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “I think the U.S. will support anyone who maintains the status-quo, someone who is not ultra-radical … and will not cause problems in the neighborhood.”
Hisham Kassem, a publisher and respected human rights activist, believes the traditional American role “is to wait and see who the winner is, and see if they can do business with them.”
“Now it's the Islamists and ‘dry' dinners at the embassy,” he said, referring to the Muslim ban on drinking alcohol.
Kassem said U.S. officials have repeatedly told him that “we have interests and values. If they contradict, interests prevail.”
Yet Ghoraba, the businessman-writer, believes the United States is too firmly aligned with the Brotherhood and is doing so at its own risk.
“Nobody really seems to be funding the liberals; they are funding themselves,” he said. “But everybody seems to be funding the Islamists, and we don't want to add the United States to that mix.”
He said U.S. officials must “make sure they are not financially arming a group” — the Brotherhood — “that so far has been very sectarian and dictator-like. If not, it might alienate even the last people in Egypt, the liberals and the capitalists, who still consider the United States (to be) a friend.”
And if the Brotherhood wins control of parliament in the next election, he warns, “they will keep their power till kingdom come.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review'sforeign correspondent. Email herat email@example.com.