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Semiformalishmaybe

When Paranoia Becomes Sensible

Recently watched a worrying story about NGOs in Egypt facing prosecution over getting foreign funds without a proper permit. As those interviewed confirm, they were in fact getting foreign funds without a permit, and the purpose of the permit/regulatory system involved is to make it harder for other nations to set up shop in Egypt and manipulate their political process and otherwise do things that amount to just-short-of-spying. This is not just a regulatory scuffle; a member of the US President's cabinet, Ray LaHood, has a son in Egypt who is not permitted to leave. This story broke a few weeks ago (I may have written briefly about it then, I don't remember). The claim pushed by Al Jazeera is that Egypt is doing this as a way to hamper democracy.

I wish I could believe it's that simple.

The problem is that the US, because of its history (both ancient and recent) has an enormous credibility problem. Egypt's military council (and its judiciary) have a credibility problem too.

The United States has long meddled anywhere they have an economic or political interest, following a variety of political theories and aiming for a number of different political ends. Sometimes this has been more overt, like removing elected leaders that would cancel our oil deals or pumping propoganda and channelling arms to dissidents in less-than-friendly nations. Sometimes it's been more subtle. The US has used, like most powerful nations, its embassies and NGOs it funds to push hidden agendas. We know this reliably to be true because it eventually declassifies its past projects (and occasionally offers halfhearted apologies for them), and because Wikileaks blew the lid off of many types of current operations.

I would be surprised if the United States is *not* using NGOs to try to shape Egypt's political process in unprincipled ways. I would *also* be surprised if Egypt's military council is coming down too hard on NGOs that have nothing to do with that. I imagine there is genuine and reasonable concern among Egypt's military council that this opening of governance is going to lead into various types of obedience to Washington's financial and political interests, and that they want to steer clear both of that and of Salafi and moderate Islamist political pressures in this time of troubles. Their society lacks the instincts of democracy, effective (corrupted or noncorrupted) institutions adequate to deal with strategic positioning, and military security.

There is the concern of rule of law as well, something which I think is theoretically fine, provided:

  • Laws are clear
  • Laws are consistently enforced and prosecuted (both by internal and external metrics)
  • Laws are decent (aiming at reasonable social interests, and capable of aiding them)
If the laws restricting involvement, sans permit, with American funders were laxly enforced in the past, this adjustment will feel rough for the NGOs effected.

I don't think we should be too quick to condemn Egypt for these actions though.

One of the sad things about the paranoia Egypt needs to show is that it hampers local political development. On the other hand, trust in the system that is not well-justified (e.g. not having laws against foreign political involvement) would also be unwise. I wonder if there's a limit to how comfortable we ever should be in a democracy given how easy it is for funds and influence to go so far out of reasonable limits.

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