Is Egypt’s Government Malicious or Incompetent?
The Egyptian government’s decision to investigate pro-democracy NGOs for criminal activity and the subsequent imposition of travel bans on democracy workers didn’t just ruin the plans of the six Americans now stuck there—it sparked a severe crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington. But how the Obama administration responds hinges on a question that it feels has not yet been answered: Is Egypt’s current government deliberately instigating conflict, or just incapable of managing its own affairs?
Though Congress has been pushing to withhold some portion of the annual foreign military funding—currently at $1.3 billion per year—that the U.S. has given Egypt since 1987, the White House has been understandably cautious. It’s not just that the White House is hesitant to lose good relations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last February. The real issue is that the Obama administration doesn’t yet believe that the SCAF is directly responsible for the inquisition against the NGOs, ascribing blame instead to Egyptian government officials whose actions are supposedly beyond the SCAF’s legitimate control. There won’t be a clear response from the White House until it has determined to its satisfaction whether Cairo has been acting maliciously, or just incompetently.
Washington isn’t the only place where this question is being asked. The question vexes practically everyone with an interest in Egypt—Egyptians most of all. In the aftermath of a recent massacre at a soccer game in Port Said, in which 73 people were killed, Egyptians were deeply divided over whom to blame. Egypt’s youth protesters, including many of the forces that catalyzed the January 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak, argued that the SCAF had orchestrated the violence. “They are using the same scenario that Mubarak was trying to threaten us last year, when he said either me or chaos,” Shadi El-Ghazali Harb, a leader in the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, told me. “In the previous match, the [fans] were chanting messages against the SCAF, so it was a punishment for them as well.” As proof of the SCAF’s direct instigation of the massacre, the youth activists noted that the gates that normally separated the two teams’ fans from one another were left open, while the exit gates had been welded shut, trapping those fleeing the onslaught. Moreover, activists observed that Port Said’s governor and security chief were conspicuously absent from the match. “They always attend such matches,” said Harb.
Others, however, blamed local security forces. In a statement following the assault, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t denounce the SCAF—they called on it for help, asking it “to address the involvement of the police apparatus that could have prevented this disaster, but instead contented itself by acting as a spectator.” Meanwhile, a parliamentary fact-finding committee, headed by an MP from the Salafist Nour Party, blamed local security authorities in Port Said and the Egyptian Football Authority (EFA), noting that the EFA, “did not perform thorough searches and allowed fans holding solid objects, lasers and weapons to enter the stadium.” The parliament’s subsequent efforts to hold the government accountable largely absolved the SCAF.