Charges Against U.S.-Aided Groups Come With History of Distrust in Egypt
The New York Times
By Scott Shane and Ron Nixon
WASHINGTON — Authoritarian rulers from Caracas to Moscow and beyond have long viewed pro-democracy groups financed by the United States with deep suspicion, regularly denouncing them as meddlers or spies and sometimes harassing their workers.
But never has a government gone as far as Egypt’s, which on Monday confirmed that it intended to try 19 Americans and more than two dozen other people on charges stemming from a criminal investigation that has shocked Obama administration officials and endangered military aid.
In the wake of the charges and response on Monday, Egypt abruptly recalled from Washington a delegation of generals that had been planning to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Egyptian state media announced charges against four such nonprofit organizations that are based in Washington and that receive some United States government support. The charges include operating without licenses, “conducting research to send to the United States” and supporting Egyptian candidates and parties “to serve foreign interests.”
Two of the American groups, affiliated with the Republican and Democratic parties, said they have taught the nuts and bolts of grass-roots organizing, political campaigns and democratic elections to anyone willing to listen, trying to avoid favoring any Egyptian political faction. Another, Freedom House, said it has trained young activists and run international exchange programs. The fourth American group, the International Center for Journalists, does training on how a free press operates.
All the groups said they have tried to comply with Egyptian laws and be transparent about their activities. “Everything we did was out in the open,” said David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House and a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
Two groups were targets of an Egyptian investigation into their role in supporting opposition to President Hosni Mubarak before he fell from power last February. “Data was collected about the activities of the American Embassy through the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute,” Mr. Mubarak’s former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, said in a deposition.
In March, after American officials announced $65 million in grants to Egyptian pro-democracy groups, Fayza Abul Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation and a holdover from Mr. Mubarak’s government, renewed her longstanding campaign against foreign financing. Some Egypt specialists say she is close to the country’s highest ranking military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Michele Dunne, an expert on Egypt at the Atlantic Council, a Washington research institution, said the motives of Egypt’s military leaders in permitting the criminal case to advance were murky. She had a personal reason to be concerned: when the list of those to be charged was released in Cairo on Monday, it included her husband, Charles Dunne, head of Middle East programs at Freedom House.
Mr. Dunne is currently in the United States, like most of the 19 Americans facing charges. Six remain in Egypt, where some have sought refuge in the American Embassy, including Sam LaHood, head of the Republican Institute’s Egypt staff and son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Ms. Dunne said the military is locked in a power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi Islamists and the pro-democracy activists who led the Tahrir Square protests, and that military leaders might be using the criminal investigation to weaken the Tahrir activists.
Still, Ms. Dunne said: “It is puzzling that the generals have let it go this far. How in the world do they think the Obama administration can deliver military assistance to them in this situation?”
But Paul J. Sullivan, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University who has long studied the Egyptian military, cautioned against interpreting the criminal charges as a result merely of high-level machinations. He said Egyptians of all affiliations are wary of undue influence from the United States, which they view as having propped up the Mubarak regime for many years.
“I understand the purpose of the N.D.I. and I.R.I.,” Dr. Sullivan said of the Democratic and Republican institutes. “But this is a newly freed state and a very brittle and emotional environment. It’s not the best environment for them to work. How would we react if a foreign country came here to teach us how to conduct elections?”
Many Egyptians appear to share the military-led government’s suspicions of American motives. “Eighty percent of the people think this is America’s work,” said Sherif Mohamed, 33, surveying metal fragments, garbage fires and dusty tear gas residue left on his block from five days of battles between protesters and security forces in Cairo.
“America does not like Islam,” he said, echoing a common sentiment here.
In recent days, several members of the newly elected Egyptian Parliament have said they look forward to the results of the investigation, asserting that it was wrong for the United States to violate Egyptian laws barring foreign financing of nonprofits.
Last year, The New York Times reported that several groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, took part in training by the American groups, which caused even more suspicion, according to interviews and diplomatic cables.
According to a September 2006 cable, Mahmoud Nayel, an official with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, complained to American Embassy officials about the United States government’s “arrogant tactics in promoting reform in Egypt.” Mr. Mubarak was “deeply skeptical of the U.S. role in democracy promotion,” said a 2007 diplomatic cable from the United States Embassy in Cairo.
The American pro-democracy groups were founded in the 1980s in part to take the place of what had been decades of covert Central Intelligence Agency involvement in the political affairs of other countries. The C.I.A.’s activities, including payments to politicians and parties in countries from Italy to Japan, were exposed and widely denounced in the 1960s and ’70s.
During the Reagan administration, Congress decided that democracy promotion was a worthy, bipartisan goal to be pursued by nonprofit groups that would work with taxpayer support — not in the shadows, but in the open.
“These institutions are not going out on the street to buy votes, which is what the C.I.A. did,” said John Prados, an intelligence historian who has written widely on the agency’s past. “The Egyptians are way over the top here. They’re chasing ghosts.”
Elliott Abrams, who was a State Department official in the Reagan administration when the Democratic and Republican groups were created, said it was expected that pro-democracy work might provoke complaints from the likes of Vladimir V. Putin of Russia or Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
“We ought to have friction with every repressive regime,” Mr. Abrams said. “The U.S. should be supporting democracy with more than just speeches.”
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Obama administration officials have made it clear that the aid is at stake. “We’re deeply disturbed by the crackdown against N.G.O.’s in Egypt, including the filing of charges against Americans,” he said, referring to nongovernmental organizations.
“We’ve made clear that we take this very seriously, that it could have consequences,” Mr. Carney added, “including our assistance programs.”
Dr. Sullivan, of Georgetown, said that both the Egyptians and the Americans should refrain from escalating the rhetoric and use quiet diplomacy to defuse the crisis. He suggested that even veteran specialists on Egypt have a hard time reading the political currents there. “My sense is that the Egyptian revolution has only just begun,” he said.