By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind — Julius Caesar.
No sooner had the deal been done and the keys to freedom handed to beleaguered NGO workers than outraged conspiracy theorists leapt out of their closets.
On the one hand, they claimed, the government trampled over the judiciary’s alleged independence. On the other, the United States forced Egypt to eat humble pie.
Or had they?
The Cairo media plunked for outrage: Scandal. Under orders from the military, the judiciary freed the Americans and let them travel — Al Tahrir.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces proved to the world that any talk of judicial independence in Egypt is no more than an illusion, the paper said. It accused SCAF of backing off under pressure.
Bring the government and the judiciary before the people’s tribunal — Al Shorouk. The government moved heaven and earth to defend Egypt’s sovereignty only to cave in. Will the government be believed the next time it cries wolf?
Strange and regrettable — Al Akhbar. The Americans have flown away and the crisis is ablaze — Al Masry Al Youm.
All fair game and may prove to be true. But diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way, Daniele Vare, an Italian diplomat counseled during his posting in Beijing in the 1920s.
Let’s poke around a bit. Here’s an official-looking letter written on Nov. 8, 2005 by Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, the oversight body for American NGOs.
Among the matters Lugar asked Gershman to investigate were reports of state security disrupting democracy supporters meeting in Alexandria to discuss the then upcoming legislative elections. Lugar said senators were deeply concerned.
He lumped Egypt with Belarus, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Uzbekistan and Putin’s Russia as foreign governments thwarting grassroots democratic movements.
What could congress do to highlight and address this problem? Lugar asked. The answers came back 18 months later in 50 pages, some apposite.
1) A few foreign governments were working together to seriously impede democracy assistance, including NGO workers being harassed, offices closed, and staff expelled. Even more vulnerable were local grantees and project partners who had been threatened, assaulted, prosecuted, imprisoned and killed.
2) Since Ukraine’s democratic revolution a paradigm shift had taken place in authoritarian regimes’ perspectives and strategies. China and Russia were tightening their authoritarian grip. They dubbed democracy an alien system.
3) Despite its collapse in Russia, Mubarak was tempted by a Chinese-style authoritarian society, elite-friendly and market driven.
Senator Lugar read of rival democracy movements increasing funding for radical Islamist groups from Saudi/Wahabbi, Iranian, Syrian and other sources.
Douglas Rutzen and Cathy Shea, president and program director, respectively, of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law in Washington DC cited Cuba and Egypt using thugs to constrain NGOs.
Restrictions on foreign funding of domestic civil society groups were increasingly common. Russia, Venezuela, Egypt and Zimbabwe provide perhaps the most blatant and pernicious instances of this trend, they said.
If America wanted to make a fuss about NGOs they could have done years ago. So why now? Why doesn’t America give up if their efforts are apparently so ineffective?
The grass is greener on democracy’s side of the fence? Freedom and democracy are a just society’s core values that offer all the opportunity to live a healthy, well-educated and prosperous life?
They were the British Empire’s rallying cry, particularly during Victorian times, as Jeremy Paxman has begun informing the UK in a new prime time BBC TV series, which began last week on the croquet lawn at Cairo’s Gezira Club.
Paxo’s point is that Britain could only sustain its influence over a quarter of the globe’s human beings by hiring locals to fight their battles for them.
Also by lying. Paxman claimed the Brits told the Egyptians in 1882 after they’d bought the Suez Canal they wouldn’t be staying long…and then invented the concept of a protectorate to stay on for 70 years.
It seems to me that’s what America is up to now. For any number of reasons, mainly after military ignominy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is going the way of all empires, forced to relinquish its grip in the face of anti-colonialism.
But America can’t leave. The American economy is a global, intertwined complexity of manufacturing, servicing, financing and trading that relies on stability for growth. That can’t be guaranteed with regimes toppling and the expectation of more to come.
America will try to maintain its influence by supporting proxy wars fought on their behalf by local military forces, just as Qatar did in Libya and as the Arab League is being pressed to do to end the carnage in Syria.
Obama knows the option to put American forces on the ground has been squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan. This week the president will hear Netanyahu’s version of Iraq’s nuclear program. However much Obama would like to turn way from the likes of Iran, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, he can’t.
He may feel as Paxo reported using black and white Pathé newsreel cinema footage from British mandate Palestine. The graffiti in Jerusalem’s Old City said: Tommy, go home. Underneath Tommy, a British soldier, had scrawled: I wish we (expletive) could.
The complexities of the NGO negotiations involved scores of diplomats from the State Department and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The result was inconclusive.
On the face of it, Egypt gave way to allow foreign NGO workers to be flown home, bailed for $2 million on the promise to return for trial. But that would not have occupied so many people so much time to work out.
In Mark Twain’s words: The principle of give and take is the principle of diplomacy: Give one and take 10.
We shall have to wait awhile to see what the rest of the deal entails.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.