CAIRO — Facing mounting challenges and spreading unrest, Egypt’s interim military rulers have resorted to an old tactic: Blame the foreigners.
In recent weeks, military leaders have charged that protesters demanding reforms and a speedy transition to democracy are working at the behest of foreign agents attempting to stoke divisions within Egyptian society.
Security forces have detained a number of foreigners — including at least five Americans — and accused them of spying for Israel or the West. The ruling Egyptian generals have also criticized recent offers of foreign aid and decried what they call attempts by the United States and other countries to meddle in Egypt’s nascent democracy.
“It’s the kind of rhetoric that resonates very strongly with Egyptians,” said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Egyptians are very proud of being Egyptians.”
Ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence officers often used xenophobic rhetoric to deflect domestic criticism, Morayef said. The recent tactics are more pervasive and blunt, she said.
Egyptian activists say the efforts to stoke xenophobia could be a pretext to crack down on groups that have become increasingly critical of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
“The military council is deliberately creating an atmosphere of deep suspicion and hostility toward anyone that dares criticize its performance,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Military leaders have in particular sought to disparage the April 6 movement, one of the most active in the mosaic of groups that brought down Mubarak in February. Army officers have asserted that the group’s members received military training in Serbia and are receiving U.S. funding — allegations that the group denies and the military has not publicly substantiated.
For any group seeking U.S. assistance, there’s a risk of being treated as suspect.
“There are 600 organizations that applied for aid at the American Embassy here in Egypt,” Maj. Gen. Hassan Roweini, a member of the military council, said in a recent televised interview. “It’s all been documented by the security apparatus of the state, with names and dates and what they’ve been training for and the amounts they’ve received from abroad.”
Last weekend, when thousands of critics of the military council attempted to march from Tahrir Square to the Defense Ministry, intense clashes broke out between the demonstrators and supporters of the military.
Activist Amr Gharbeia, a member of Bahgat’s group, was seized by a team of pro-military men who beat him, paraded him through the streets calling him a spy, and tried to turn him in to military intelligence personnel, Bahgat said. The military did nothing to release him from his captors.
Another demonstrator, Egyptian tour guide Yasmin Abdul Razik, said she was taken into custody by military police officers.
Soldiers and a plainclothes man beat her, dragged her around by her hair, used electric prods to sting her arms and back, and searched furiously through her bag. Inside, they found $12. Soldiers jumped on the top of their vehicle, showing they had found American dollars in her possession, she said. They questioned her for five hours about the cash, and photographed her holding the bills, accusing her of using foreign money to pay people to protest.
“The military leadership is rotten,” said Razik, 26, whose bruises are still visible. “They are using the same tactics, calling us foreign agents because they don’t understand that we are protesting because we love our country.”
Egyptian security officials have also detained a number of foreigners, accusing them of espionage.
Four of the five Americans taken into custody in recent weeks were released July 11, after days of questioning, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
Ilan Grapel, 27, a law student who holds Israeli and American citizenship, remains in custody. Egyptian officials have said Israel dispatched him to Cairo to stoke religious tension and to incite Egyptians against the military council — charges that his family and the Israeli government have called ridiculous.
Western diplomats said they are alarmed by the rising xenophobia, which they say has the potential to put Egypt’s streams of foreign funding in jeopardy. The military council recently nixed a negotiated $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that would have alleviated some of the country’s most urgent needs, saying Egypt could do without foreign aid.
The generals have also complained that Washington is trying to meddle in Egyptian politics by funding and training candidates and parties. U.S. officials say their activities are nonpartisan.
Ironically, one Western diplomat said, no Egyptian institution has been more dependent on international aid than the armed forces, which have long received the bulk of the roughly $2 billion in annual U.S. assistance.
“I think they never anticipated that they would be held responsible for every little thing,” the diplomat in Cairo said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol. “It’s much easier to have someone else to blame.”