Washington, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman, the Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following remarks as prepared for delivery at today’s committee hearing entitled, “Egypt at a Crossroads.”
The statement follows:
On December 29, Egyptian police raided the Cairo offices of the NGOs represented before us today and confiscated all the cash and materials on hand. As we know, the investigation has proceeded from there, and numerous employees of these NGOs – American, Egyptian, and third-country – have been put on notice that they are likely to be prosecuted for the alleged crime of working with unregistered, or, quote, unquote “illegal,” organizations. And, I should note, it wasn’t only US NGOs that were raided. The police also went after several Egyptian NGOs, as well as the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The facts of this crisis and the rationale for the Egyptian action remain somewhat murky. The raids occurred at a time when, by all reports, pressure on the NGO community had been easing. In fact, the Egyptian government had invited NDI and IRI to sponsor delegations of international election observers, and these delegations conducted their work largely without interference during the two rounds of voting prior to the raids and the one round that took place after the raids.
We are here today to listen and learn from these NGO leaders, all of them experts on building civil society and democracy. In particular, I’d be interested in exploring the following issues with you: What is the nature of the work that your organizations do in Egypt, and why are some Egyptian authorities so concerned about it? What is the current situation of your employees and your offices? Where does the case against your employees stand, according to your best information? And what can you tell us about the way Egypt works that might have led to this case?
In your view, who or what is driving this case? How hopeful are you that it can still be resolved without convictions and prison terms? And, lastly, what are the prospects that your organizations’ presence in Egypt can be normalized?
As members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, we cannot ignore the larger context in which this crisis takes place. Egypt is the largest and most important state in the Arab world. Its peace with Israel has been an anchor of stability and US strategy in the Middle East. Egyptian-Israeli wars used to occur almost like clockwork once a decade; as of now, there has not been an Egyptian-Israeli war for nearly forty years, and, as a result, thousands of people are alive today who probably otherwise would not be. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is a boon for Egypt and for Israel, but also a boon for United States interests.
Our close relationship with Egypt provides us with many benefits. Most notably, our ships, including vessels critical to our national security, are able to pass routinely through the Suez Canal – often on a priority basis.
Our relationship with Egypt began growing close almost immediately after the 1973 war, when Henry Kissinger was negotiating a cease-fire. It was foreshadowed by Sadat’s summary expulsion of Soviet advisers in 1972 and sealed by the 1979 peace treaty. The US and Egypt have been, in effect, strategic partners ever since.
But it was not always so. From the mid-1950s onward, Gamal Abdul-Nasser’s Egypt was stridently anti-Western and anti-US and a Soviet ally. In fact, Nasser – charismatic and gifted orator that he was – turned much of the Arab world against the U.S. Nasser died in 1970, and later that decade the US and Egypt initiated a partnership that could not have been remotely envisioned during the Nasser years.
This NGO crisis raises the specter that there are perhaps some in Egypt who would like to see the pendulum swing back again to the bad old days.
Egypt is important and its friendship cannot be taken for granted, so we have to think carefully as to how this outrageous action against US NGOs and against civil society in general fits into the overall bilateral relationship. I am a strong supporter of US-Egyptian ties, but I do know this: We have no more serious responsibility in foreign policy than that of ensuring that our citizens are not abused.
And one dimension of this issue cannot be brushed aside: foreign assistance. Current law requires that, as a condition for the disbursal of military assistance to Egypt, the Secretary of State must certify that Egypt is implementing policies that protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and rule of law. And, although the law allows for a waiver, I cannot imagine the Secretary could either make that certification or waive the requirement, as long as this NGO case moves forward – and I would not encourage her to do so.
I thank Chairman Ros-Lehtinen for holding this important hearing and look forward to hearing from our distinguished panel of witnesses.