Meet Fayza Abul-Naga, a Woman of Ambition

An International Lesson in Political Opportunism

Scott Lilly examines the role of an Egyptian politician whose ultranationalist rhetoric threatens Egypt’s economy as well as its most important international alliances.

Fayza Abul-Naga has not won high marks from the international community for statesmanship or enlightened policy, but when it comes to political agility she is a gold medal winner. (AP/ Firdia Lisnawati)
Fayza Abul-Naga has not won high marks from the international community for statesmanship or enlightened policy, but when it comes to political agility she is a gold medal winner. (AP/ Firdia Lisnawati)

It seems the United States has been plagued in recent years by an increasing number of politicians willing to take highly destructive stands on public policies to win the support of poorly informed voters. Unfortunately, we share that problem with a lot of other countries around the world.

One of the most egregious examples is a rising star in the volatile politics of Egypt, a woman by the name of Fayza Abul-Naga. She is Egypt’s Minister for Planning and International Cooperation and she could teach the likes of Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, and George Wallace a thing or two about demagoguery and the exploitation of populist bias. Her skills have not won her high marks from the international community for statesmanship or enlightened policy, but when it comes to political agility she is a gold medal winner.

Abul-Naga entered the political arena under the tutelage of former President Hosni Mubarak, who appointed her Egypt’s foreign minister in 2001. Later she moved to the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation, a position that might be considered more politically sensitive with respect to Egypt’s domestic politics. Following Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, Abul-Naga retained that post in an interim government and even when last fall’s demonstrations resulted in a cabinet shakeup, the appointment of a new prime minister, and the departure of nearly all of Mubarak’s cabinet holdovers, Abul-Naga held on to her powerful perch at Planning and International Cooperation.

She clearly has a good ear for the changing tenor of Egyptian politics and is not about to let her close association with the Mubarak get in the way of future opportunities. While many political elites in Egypt see the transition to democracy as a period in which leaders should exercise caution and measure their rhetoric, Abul-Naga has been pursuing the exact opposite strategy.

But the country has paid a price. Egypt’s revolution and turmoil has been driven as much by unemployment as by aspirations for greater democracy. But official figures indicate that the number of unemployed may have increased by as much as 33 percent since Mubarak’s departure, with much of that deterioration directly linked to Abul-Naga and her insistence last June that Egypt reject a $3.2 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, which she argued was contrary to Egypt’s national interest.

Abul-Naga argued that Egypt (unlike other nations whose financial situations force them to seek lending subsidized by other governments around the world) should not accept conditions dictated by the World Bank or the IMF. To further underscore her opposition to the oppression of Egypt by its benefactors she chastised the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for violating Egypt’s sovereignty by specifying that a $165 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development would be used for education, civic activities, and human rights.

Such comments may play well in some neighborhoods of Cairo for a time but they have done little to sustain Egypt’s lagging economy. The New York Times reports that Egypt’s foreign reserves have dropped from $36 billion to around $10 billion, and the country could completley run out of foreign exchange during March. Billions more in foreign private capital that might have flowed to Egypt in the wake of an IMF agreement are now on hold. Meanwhile, youth unemployment is estimated at 25 percent—in a country in which around 60 percent of the population is under 30.

That is one compelling reason that Abul-Naga is attempting to divert public attention from the looming economic meltdown the country now faces to another issue she hopes the public will find equally compelling—the manipulation of Egypt’s public affairs by foreign interventionists. But the alleged perpetrators of these dark plots are not shadowy agents of the Central Intelligence Agency, MI6, or even Mossad, as one might suppose she’d say. No, they are by and large an idealistic band of young people from various countries who work for nongovernment organizations attempting to help Egypt build the civil institutions essential for the transition to a functioning democracy.

Abul-Naga sees it differently. According to an Associated Press story, she claims the activity is a "unilateral" effort by the U.S. government to direct part of its economic aid to human rights and democracy groups that has been going on since 2004. She says this constitutes political funding not allowed by Egyptian law—never mind that many of these groups have filed the necessary paperwork with her ministry and have been operating in Egypt for a number of years while waiting for formal approval. A statement from her office quoted her as saying it was the duty of the groups not to operate until they get permission. Her assistant, Ambassador Marawan Badr, is quoted as saying, "They know they are working illegally and without license."

As a result, Egyptian security forces in December raided 17 offices of 10 different international organizations including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. They cleaned out file cabinets, hauled off computers and other equipment and have yet to return a shred of paper. A total of 43 young people employed by these organizations have been forbidden to leave the country and increasingly appear likely to face criminal prosecution. Of that group 19 are Americans, but the majority are from other countries including Egypt, Serbia, and Germany. All of this took place seven years after Abul-Naga claims foreign violations of this law began occurring.

It now appears that the IMF will attempt a bailout without the conditions that Abul-Naga objected to, but it is uncertain how much more capital might be drawn into a country that has refused to abide by the basic reforms the IMF views as essential for sustainable recovery. It is also doubtful whether Abul-Naga’s antics will give Egypt any opportunity to breathe life into its flagging tourist industry, which has traditionally been a huge source of foreign currency.

Abul-Naga may be cleverly positioning herself as the Mubarak/military candidate for the July presidential elections, but she will inherit a huge mess of her own making if she wins.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow