by Mordechai Kedar
For generations, countries in the Middle East have been in the "cross-hairs" of the Western countries: Europe, the United States and Canada. The colonialism of the previous centuries resulted in the conquest, control and exploitation of natural resources. During the twentieth century, colonialism underwent a change of character. It became characterized by political hegemony, taking over the state security apparatus and buying the support of economically corrupt individuals with money. During the past twenty years a new form of Western influence on Middle Eastern countries has developed: influence by means of "civil society organizations" (NGOs), which are underwritten with Western funds.
In the Arab world, thousands of these organizations are active, and the great majority of them act with the approval of the government since these organizations lighten the burden on the government, and help the society to adopt and implement modern and rational characteristics such as democracy and the rule of law, and to marginalize traditional qualities such as tradition, tribalism and belief in evil spirits. There are organizations that deal with health and establish clinics that provide the population with medical care. Another important subject that many organizations deal with is the status of women, and many of these deal with instruction to women, in subjects ranging from mathematics to how to start up a business. Others establish clinics for women's medicine, and others teach them handiwork. The Western volunteers who work in these organizations are motivated by dedication to the people that their organization serves, and live many times in clearly uncomfortable conditions. They sacrifice their comfort and sometimes also their health and even their lives, when they are attacked by local people who object to their activities.
Sometimes the local government harasses these organizations, principally when it seems to the government that they are subverting it and encouraging deeds that should not be done according to the view of the people in power. This is the way it is now in Egypt, which has closed a number of organizations that deal with education towards democracy, and where nineteen American volunteers, together with local Egyptian operatives are about to stand trial for their activities. This matter severely clouds Egypt-U.S. relations. The Egyptian government's claim is that these operatives transgressed Egyptian law because they ran organizations without permission, but everyone knows that this claim is only a fig leaf to hide the truth: the government of Egypt does not want foreigners to be involved in its internal matters or to educate its populace in a way that the government doesn't agree with.
Moreover, there is the issue of national pride, which in Egypt has been emphasized and developed in a special way during the past year, after the Egyptian people succeeded in overthrowing the rule of the ruler who humiliated and degraded them for many years by imposing a dictatorial and debasing regime upon them, under the auspices of the Americans. The feeling that encompassed the Egyptians as a result of the overthrow of Mubarak a year ago is one of great pride that they succeeded to remove the "Sphinx" that oppressed them, tortured them and refused them their rights and their honor. They did this with their own hands, although many people sacrificed their lives, and immediately after the success in removing him, they had the feeling of "Yes, we can!!". This feeling brings them out again and again to the streets in protest against the continuation of the rule of the Supreme Military Council, since those youngsters in Tahrir Square did not sacrifice themselves in order to remove the old officers out the door, so that young officers would be able to come in by the window.
On the other hand, the Supreme Military Council, who runs the government as General Tantawi sees fit, does not agree with the excessive freedom (in its opinion) that the Egyptian people have gained and sees foreign organizations as part of the problem, because it suspects them of sticking their noses into Egypt's internal affairs and encouraging Egyptian youth to organize and become more active and effective in activities against the new military dictatorship, which has developed in Egypt during the past half year.
At issue are about nine organizations, four of which are Egyptian, four American and one German, and putting 43 people on trial for receiving foreign funding illegally: 16 Egyptians, 19 Americans, 5 Serbians and 3 Germans. They are also accused of collecting information in order to transfer it to the United States, and for drumming up support for Egyptian candidates and parties "in the service of foreign interests." And indeed, the "sin" of these organizations is that they supported the Egyptian secular, liberal youth, and the parties who represented them, who lost the elections. The American organization "Freedom House" indeed admitted that it sent people to Egypt who would educate the Egyptian press on how to conduct a free press. Other organizations dealt with spreading the ideas involved with civil society, and promotion of fair democratic elections. Despite this, spokesmen of the American organizations emphasize that they complied with all of the instructions on Egyptian Law and all of their activities were transparent and open.
The Egyptian organizations that are under investigation, "The National Democratic Institute" and "The International Republican Institute", are being investigated for the suspicion of the subversion of Mubarak's regime that eventually led to his downfall. Many suspect that the whole matter of the investigations is actually a power struggle between the Supreme Military Council and the Muslim Brotherhood; a struggle in which the officers try to show the "brothers" their strength by standing firm even against the great and powerful America, which supplies Egypt with the money and food that are so essential at this time.
The Egyptian decision to close down the organizations and to bring the volunteers to trial has created great tension in the relationship between Egypt and the United states. Washington (President Obama, the members of his staff, and members of Congress) is trying to pressure the Egyptian government to stop the process of bringing the 19 volunteers to trial, and to free them forthwith. Washington also threatens to stop its military and civilian support to Egypt, which could bring many Egyptians to a state of starvation.
The question is what causes the Egyptian government - the military, and the civilian which is activated by the military - to enter into a conflict such as this especially with the United States. There are several possible answers to this question, and the most important among them is the will of the Egyptian regime to find who is guilty for the revolution not having brought forth the hoped-for fruit. The economy is collapsing, tourism has disappeared, poverty is increasing, unemployment is spreading, the treasury is empty, the military continues to rule with cruelty and rigidity, and without a shred of sensitivity, and there are still some Mubarak loyalists who remain in power. A situation like this creates a strong desire to find a scapegoat who can be blamed for the failure. Israel cannot be the scapegoat, because that would mean that a small and contemptible country like the "Zionist Entity" has succeeded to destroy the Egyptian revolution. Therefore, a big strong country that can be blamed for the failure of the revolution must be sought, and what country is bigger and more powerful than the United States?
We saw something similar in 1967 at the beginning of the Six Day War, when it became clear that Abd al-Naser, president of Egypt, and Husein, King of Jordan, when they understood that their Air Forces had been destroyed on the ground in an attack by the Israeli Air Force. They discussed by telephone the possibilities of accusing the United States of the bombing, because if it was known that Israel had done this, it would be a great humiliation for them, that such a small country (certainly according to Israel's size before the Six Day War) succeeded within one short day to destroy their Air Forces on the ground. The discussion between Abd al-Naser and Husein was recorded by Israeli Intelligence and after the Arabic radio stations publicized that the Americans attacked the Arab Force bases, Israel broadcast the discussion by means of "the Voice of Israel in Arabic". The broadcast of this deception caused the two rulers tremendous humiliation, since they had been caught "red handed" as a pair of liars plotting their deception.
To the religious Egyptian Muslims, who are the great majority in Egypt, it's easy to accuse the United States of plots against Egypt, because they have an underlying assumption that the United States hates Islam, and will do anything in its power to undermine the new majority of Islam in the Egyptian parliament, and to restore the Land of the Nile to those who are guided by secular and liberal principles. Organizations of civil society (NGOs) that spread ideas foreign to Islam like democracy and which are funded by the United States are the ideal scapegoat for the religious Egyptians who are frustrated by the failure of the revolution.
Beyond a search for whom to blame for the failure of the revolution, it might be that there is in Egypt and in the investigation of the Americans also a bit of revenge against the United States because it supported Mubarak and his cruel regime for years. Even so, these things should be seen in context, because the Egyptian on the street sees that many state leaders don't mind making serious accusations against the United States: This is what Chavez, the president of Venezuela does: this is what Mahmud Ahmadi-Najad, the president of Iran, does, and even the prime minister of Israel, who dares to build apartments in Jerusalem over the strong objections of the White House.
The fact that the Egyptian government, despite the difficult problems in which it finds itself, feels that it can now oppose the United States stems from the International weakness that the greatest super power in the world projects. Despite American hints of reduction in support to Egypt because of this matter, it appears that the Egyptian officers think that the United States will not dare to cut off foreign aid because it might cause an increase in the living expenses for millions of Egyptians who, without the American support, would starve to death. And whom would they accuse for this? Not the United States? And so - in their opinion, they can push their luck with the Americans because they believe that the Americans will not dare to stop the shipments of food to Egypt. (Gaza serves as an example too, that it is possible to shoot missiles at a country, and that country will continue to feed those who are shooting missiles at it.)
The discussion in Egypt about American "foreign funding" can also point in the opposite direction, when spokesmen for the secular parties, who are accused of accepting funds from the United States for their organizations, accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of taking funds from an "external source". An "external source", in this framework is a code name for two bodies: Iran and Al-Qaeda.
It is interesting that there are Americans who express understanding of the Egyptian action against the foreign-funded NGOs. One of them said this week: "What would we do if another country was getting involved in our internal affairs"? Others in Washington are trying to solve the problem quietly, behind the scenes, in a way that puts the United States in the role of the responsible adult, who on one hand continues to feed the naughty Egyptians, and on the other hand brings back to the United States 19 American citizens who were only guilty of wanting to bring Western democracy to an Arab country, which chose rather, the Islam of the Middle East.
However, we must remember that Israel is in the same boat as Egypt. Who funds the New Israel Fund? Who clumsily interferes in the democratic process in Israel? Who funds the organizations that dull the Jewish and Zionist character of Israel? Who pours money into a "peace" plan the sole purpose of which is to weaken the stamina of the people who dwell in Zion?
A country that compromises its independence and sovereignty, and behaves like a beggar in the souk has no one to blame but itself when others come to stir its pot.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
Translated from Hebrew by Sally.
Links to Dr. Kedar's recent articles on this blog:
- The Death Throes of the Lion
- Mordechai Kedar: An Old Governmental System in FormationFrustration and Extortion
- Thank You, Hamas
- Drums of War in the Gulf
- 2011: The Year of the Arab Winter
- And This is the Gate of Heaven
Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.