Egypt police - AP - Feb 2012
Egyptian police in front of NGO employees in court in February 2012. Photo by AP
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The release of American NGO activists from trial in Egypt raises questions about democracy - and about Egypt's ability to resist U.S. intervention.

The letter I received from an Egyptian friend sums up, to a large extent, the feeling among many liberal intellectuals who aspired to depose former President Hosni Mubarak's regime but are not yet certain what they have received in its stead.

"Against all the odds," he writes, "at the personal level I am just fine. Of course I am suffering from a drop in income because the flow of requests for translations has slowed down. I am compensating for this with work for a nongovernmental organization but that is not enough to cover the increasing expenses, especially the outlays on education and private lessons for the children, which is causing tension in the family.

"At the public level things are degenerating from day to day," the letter continues. "Getting rid of the president suddenly seems like a simple task as compared to the uprooting of the culture of dictatorship, which is firmly rooted not only in the government institutions but also in the public. This culture has become part of the prevailing culture over hundreds of years, as has corruption. Now the dictatorship and the corruption are blending with the religiosity and the religious movements, which are in control of every area of endeavor in the country and are building themselves up as the new National Democratic Party [the ruling party under Mubarak], thereby exacerbating the younger generation's frustration. And the idiot Americans are falling into the trap laid for them by those groups and are beginning to play the same two-faced diplomatic game they played with the brutal regimes of the past, which will lead to a new regional conflagration in the future.

"Aficionados of conspiracy theories are already saying that what is happening is part of an American - and of course Zionist - plot," says the letter. "I am talking about people who were involved in the revolution and are now discovering it has been stolen from them and see the Americans as partners of the thieves. True, it is a matter of interests, but the impression is that the United States really is hostile to the inhabitants of the region. There are people who even believe that the recent harassment of the nongovernmental organizations [the arrest of employees of several pro-democracy NGOs on suspicion of using foreign funds to foment unrest], as well as the attack on the American Embassy were part of a conspiracy concocted by the government of Egypt, the United States and Israel.

"I think the deep feeling is that the interests of the leaders of those countries are intertwined," my friend writes, "and that the United States and Israel are supporting the dictatorship and the corruption in order to keep the citizens of the region under control. The reality of course is far more complex but what is important here is how the public is perceiving the state of affairs because it is according to this perception that the government's policy will be shaped."

Public manifestations of the feelings described by my friend in his letter could be seen on the weekend after the American administration "persuaded" the Egyptian government to release on bail the American citizens who were among the NGO employees who were arrested and are now facing trial. Among the 43 activists are 16 foreigners, of whom seven are Americans. Washington threatened to suspend annual aid to Egypt, totaling $1.3 billion, if they were not released.

Initially the Egyptian government reared up on its hind legs and Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri solemnly declared that "Egypt would not bend its knee." Then official American envoys started coming, backed by belligerent statements from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and finally the Supreme Military Council agreed to allow the American activists to leave on a private plane that came to collect them in return for payment of a $330,000 guarantee per suspect.

Instant explosion

The explosion was instantaneous. Members of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood movement accused the Egyptian government of accepting a bribe from the American administration, and announced their intention to demand the dismissal of el-Ganzouri and his government and the establishment of a new government in its stead. Two judges who were appointed to investigate the NGO affair, Sameh Abu Zeid and Ashraf El-Ashmawi, recused themselves from the case because of the insult they felt at "the nullification of our decision to prevent the foreign suspects' departure from the country," as el-Ashmawi said.

Liberal activists who support the NGOs' activity also saw the government's decision as a surrender to American pressure. It was "crude intervention in the judicial system and severe damage to the democratic process," in the words of independent MP and sociologist Amr Hamzawy. For most revolutionary movements in Egypt, the "NGO trial" has become a litmus test for the "new" Egyptian democracy, for the independence of the judicial system and for Egypt's ability to conduct its internal affairs without foreign - and especially American - intervention.

"We must not be angry at the decision to release the suspects - apparently this is a political 'correction' of an indictment that was political from its inception," wrote Ahmed El-Sawi in Egyptian newspaper Al Shorouk, "but we must be concerned about the fact that the state is continuing to use the judicial system as a tool for settling political accounts and more than that, about the fact that the United States is intervening in matters that could lead to the breakup of the state."

Indeed, it is particularly difficult to understand why the American administration saw only to the release of its own citizens and did not demand a bailout of the Egyptian citizens as well. After such an "initiative," it is no wonder conspiracy theories are flourishing.