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 issue 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 oftentimes live 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 current situation 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 finds disagreeable.
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 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 Mubarak’s overthrow 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, and many people sacrificed their lives, and immediately after the success in removing him, they were galvanized by 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 feel that they did not sacrifice themselves in order to push the old officers out the door, only for young officers 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 43 people being put 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.