The New York Times Looks at Egypt’s Charges Against Pro-democracy Groups

Egypt’s Premier Vows Not to Yield in Prosecuting 19 Americans
The New York Times
By David D. Kirkpatrick

CAIRO — The military-appointed prime minister vowed Wednesday that Egypt would defy Washington’s pressure to halt criminal prosecutions of 19 Americans as investigating judges accused them of manipulating the Egyptian political process and improperly collecting information to send home to the United States.

“Egypt will not kneel,” Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri said, brushing aside the increasingly forceful warnings from President Obama and Congressional leaders that the United States could withhold $1.55 billion in annual aid to Egypt over the case.

The investigating judges’ statements were the first in which they laid out their evidence against several nonprofit groups, including some politically connected American organizations. The case has brought on a crisis in the 30-year American alliance with Egypt, which has long been considered a pillar of regional stability.

In a televised news conference, the Egyptian judges overseeing the investigation only added to the confrontational tone surrounding the case. Judge Sameh Abu Zaid declared that the groups did not qualify as “civil society” organizations because their purpose was purely political, to influence the political situation in Egypt.

The groups include the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, federally financed American groups with close ties to Congressional leaders that are chartered to promote democracy abroad. Adding to the political sensitivity, the Egypt chief of the Republican Institute is Sam LaHood, the son of Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation and a former Republican representative.

Egyptian officials have said the case grew out of an investigation into illicit foreign financing of nonprofit groups here. It is in many ways an easy case to make because almost every independent human rights or advocacy group is unlicensed, foreign financed and therefore illegal. The former government of President Hosni Mubarak, however, long tolerated such unlicensed groups, deliberately keeping them in legal twilight and always vulnerable to prosecution.

Saying that they had collected “dangerous” evidence, the investigating judges described a variety of discoveries, including reports that at least one group had asked what the judges suggested were inappropriate questions touching on religious divisions, and then sent that information back to foreign capitals, and a map showing Egypt divided into four parts. The judges said piles of cash worth hundreds of thousands of dollars had also been found. (They did not say which groups did what.)

The discovery of the map fed a popular conspiracy theory here that the United States might seek to divide Egypt into multiple parts as British colonialists once divided up the Arab world. But officials who worked for some of the accused organizations have said the maps were government-issued charts of election districts.

To Egyptians, the reference to questions about religion was reminiscent of the frequent suggestions by some Egyptian officials who have, after outbreaks of sectarian violence, routinely blamed unnamed “foreign hands” for stirring strife between Muslims and Christians. The questions appear to have been part of a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute and are available on its Web site. The group has said that the poll, which also contained political questions, was part of its efforts to help open up Egypt’s political process.

At times, the prosecutors were either confused or provided information that appears to be misleading. Judge Zaid said at one point that an American organization had financed a secret group called the Arrow of Confidence, which in turn created a project to take photographs of churches and military installations under the name “April 7.” To Egyptians, that was unmistakable invocation of a well-known activist organization, the April 6 Youth Group, which government officials have accused of taking American money and blamed for stirring up street protests.

But instead of a secret American-backed group, the Arrow of Confidence is an officially licensed Egyptian human rights organization, formally recognized since 2007. The group received German financing to hold a seminar on social media that just happened to take place on April 7, said Nihal Nasr el Din, the founder of the Arrow of Confidence.

“This is nonsense and a big lie,” she said in a telephone interview.

The German backer, the Konrad Adenauer Institute, is so far the only non-American group involved in the prosecution. The institute has operated in Egypt for three decades, mostly in collaboration with officially authorized organizations that include Cairo University.

All the accused groups say they seek to promote democracy, not to interfere with politics.

Charles W. Dunne, Middle East director for Freedom House — another American group chartered to promote democracy whose staff has been charged in the case — said the grab bag of inflammatory insinuations cited in the news conference was evidence of the political character of the case. “Every morning you wake up and you find the Egyptians have found some new way to escalate this,” he said.

Forty-three people have been charged in the case, including the 19 Americans. But many of those charged appear to be outside the country; perhaps as few as half a dozen of the Americans are inside Egypt, and they are barred from leaving. Sam LaHood and as many as five other Americans are taking shelter in the United States Embassy for fear of arrest.

The investigating judges said that if convicted of participating in the foreign financing of unlicensed nonprofit groups, the suspects could face jail sentences of as much as five years. The judges also said they expected the investigation to continue, potentially snaring other foreign-financed nonprofit organizations and rights groups as well.

In an effort to resolve the matter, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will travel to Egypt to meet with his counterpart on Egypt’s ruling military council. His trip was previously scheduled but is now expected to include discussion of the case.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are stepping up pressure as well. “There are committed opponents of the United States and the U.S.-Egypt relationship within the government in Cairo who are exacerbating tensions and inflaming public opinion in order to advance a narrow political agenda,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, said in a joint statement. “Congressional support for Egypt — including continued financial assistance — is in jeopardy. A rupture in relations would be disastrous, and the risks of such an outcome have rarely been greater.”

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