IRI’s Scott Mastic Talks to the New York Times about Egypt’s Appointment of the Official Who Lead the Crackdown on NGOs

Egypt Elevates an Official Hostile to U.S.
The New York Times
By David D. Kirkpatrick

CAIRO — President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is appointing a national security adviser who two years ago spearheaded criminal charges that nonprofit groups were acting as agents of an American conspiracy to weaken and destabilize Egypt.

The new adviser, Fayza Abul Naga, provoked one of the biggest crises in Cairo’s 35-year-old alliance with Washington. The case forced the son of an American cabinet secretary to hide in the United States Embassy for weeks for fear of arrest. It elicited personal threats and appeals by President Obama to Egypt’s top generals. And it culminated in the reported payment of as much as $4.6 million in forfeited bail and the secretive flight of a half dozen United States citizens on a charter jet to Cyprus.

Analysts said Ms. Abul Naga’s return underscored the Sisi government’s persistent disregard for its alliance with Washington, as well as a darkly suspicious view of civil organizations.

“The fact that she is such a recognizable face clearly makes this an obvious slap in the face to the United States, but it is in keeping with the way that this government has handled the bilateral relationship,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egyptian-American researcher at the Century Foundation, based in New York.

And domestically, he said, “this is just confirmation of what we already know about the government: Its approach to civil society is unbridled hostility, and there is a real possibility that the sector is going to be squelched and shut down completely in the coming months.”

Ms. Abul Naga served for many years as minister in charge of international cooperation under President Hosni Mubarak, who relied on her to haggle with Washington for control of the roughly $250 million in annual nonmilitary American aid. After Mr. Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, she was one of the few of his cabinet ministers retained in the military-led transitional government.

It was at the end of that year that Ms. Abul Naga led the criminal case against three American nonprofit groups chartered by Congress to promote democracy: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. The police raided their offices, seized computers and documents, and placed travel bans on their employees — including Sam LaHood of the International Republican Institute, the son of Ray LaHood, then secretary of transportation. To avoid arrest, Sam LaHood and at least two other Americans camped out in the offices of the American Embassy.

Prosecutors accused the organizations’ employees, including dozens of Egyptians, of violating a strict but seldom-enforced ban on receiving unauthorized financing from abroad, charges punishable by prison time. But in court papers and the state news media, Ms. Abul Naga further accused the organizations of participating in a scheme by the American government to stir unrest in the streets.

“The United States and Israel could not directly create and sustain a state of chaos, so they used direct funding, especially American, as the means to reach those goals,” Ms. Abul Naga told investigators before the raids, in testimony later reported in the state news media.

“Evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy,” she continued, “since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests, not only in Egypt but across the whole region.” The International Republican Institute, she said, served the “right wing” agenda of the Republican Party. And she called Freedom House a tool of the “Jewish lobby.”

Sixteen American defendants were out of the country when the case came to trial; all, including Mr. LaHood, were convicted in absentia. Dozens of Egyptian staff members were convicted and given suspended sentences.

Ms. Abul Naga disappeared from the public eye with the election in 2012 of President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist later deposed by the military.

Her return as national security adviser coincides with new signs that the government may be cracking down again on nonprofit groups. Most rights groups and many other nonprofits here have operated for years in a kind of legal twilight, more or less openly violating the unenforced prohibition on receiving foreign financing without government authorization and oversight.

But the government recently announced a deadline of Nov. 10 for full compliance with the old laws. Several rights advocates have left the country for fear of arrest. Many who remain say they fear their organizations may soon be shuttered.

In many ways, “the rest of the government has caught up with her,” Mr. Hanna said. With the Egyptian press “awash in conspiracy-addled discourse” like her charges two years ago, he said, “she is not even an outlier.”

Scott Mastic, regional director for the International Republican Institute, said, “Beyond the outrageous nature of her actions, how should we take it seriously that they are turning a page when they are returning to personalities from the past that have been so damaging to U.S.-Egypt strategic relations?”

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