From 2001 to 2012, through three administrations and five prime ministers, there was one constant in the fast-changing face of the Egyptian government: Fayza Abouelnaga, the minister of international cooperation.
Abouelnaga’s recent appointment as national security advisor to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stirred waves of awe at the veteran politician’s resilience through political changes, as she makes it through one more presidency and breaks into the field of security following her 40-year career as a diplomat and Cabinet member.
Some see the appointment of the former minister — an outspoken opponent of foreign funding to NGOs in Egypt — as one more sign that the government is plotting a vigorous crackdown on civil society.
Abouelnaga started her career as a diplomat in 1975 representing Egypt in the United Nations. She represented Egypt in several diplomatic missions around the world until 2001.
Despite her diplomatic career, however, Abouelnaga has often expressed mistrust of the outside world, accusing the United States and other nations of plotting Egypt’s downfall by funding local NGOs.
As Minister of International Cooperation and Planning Abouelnaga spearheaded a vicious campaign against non-governmental organizations and their foreign funding sources in 2012.
In her statements, Abouelnaga raised suspicion against civil society organizations in Egypt that receive funds from abroad, and against the nations giving that funding, asserting that that such activities undermine the nation’s sovereignty. To that end, one of her main missions was curtailing US non-military aid to Egypt.
Abouelnaga was the driving force behind a criminal case against three American NGOs working in Egypt at the time, creating one of the tensest diplomatic spats in the history of Egypt-US relations.
After a raid on the three NGOs, 19 US citizens were accused of manipulating the Egyptian political process and improperly collecting information. Following several high-profile statements from US officials condemning the crackdown, to which the Egyptian side asserted that it would not back down, the crisis was resolved through an official arrangement allowing the American defendants to sneak out of the country on a US military plane.
They were all convicted in absentia, while their Egyptian colleagues received suspended sentences.
Abouelnaga’s cutthroat position on civil society and foreign funding is in line with the current government’s rhetoric.
NGOs have operated for decades in accordance with an unspoken arrangement with the government that let them function within a system that doesn’t allow them to fully legalize their positions.
However, the new Cabinet issued a November 17 deadline to all civil society organizations to register in accordance with a law from former President Hosni Mubarak’s era, which civil society representatives have lambasted as repressive.
An amendment to the Penal Code has also severely increased the punishment for receiving foreign funds for activities that “harm national security,” allowing judges to mete out life sentences or, in specific cases, even the death penalty.
Bringing Abouelnaga onboard to advise on security measures could be an escalation of this campaign, according to critics.
Her appointment as the first female national security advisor to the president is the most recent of several firsts in the former minister’s trailblazing career.
Abouelnaga’s background is also a significant precedent — national security positions are usually reserved to former generals and officers. The move signals a wider view of national security threats to include civil society, not only military dangers.
Abouelnaga was also the only Egyptian diplomat appointed by Arab League Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali as his personal adviser in 1992, after having worked under him in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In 2001, Abouelnaga was the first woman appointed as minister for international cooperation — a position that was tied to another ministry at the time. In 2004, the Ministry of International Cooperation was created under her leadership.
She was one of only a few Mubarak-era ministers to make it into former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq’s Cabinet in January 2011, and then stuck around to keep serving in ex-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s government later that year. At that time, she took on additional jurisdictions, as her ministry expanded to become the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.
After a last hop into the Cabinet of 2011’s third Prime Minister Kamal Ganzoury, Abouelnaga refused to continue leading her designated ministry in 2012 under the Muslim Brotherhood government headed by former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil, and laid low until her recent appointment.
Diplomacy, security and executive administration are not the only fields that Abouelnaga conquered throughout her career, in 2010 she also became a member of the Parliament, winning one of the women-designated seats in the governorate of Port Said.