Wall Street Journal: Egypt has Gradually Tightened the Screws on NGOs

Egypt to Charge Foreign Workers
The Wall Street Journal
By Matt Bradley 

CAIRO — Egyptian prosecutors will bring criminal charges against more than 40 employees of nongovernmental organizations, including 19 Americans, escalating an investigation of foreign groups that has ruptured Egypt’s relationship with its most important financial patron.

The American NGO employees—who work for the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute in Cairo—said they didn’t know whether the referral of the case to a criminal court would lead to their arrest and imprisonment. But the move could mark a diplomatic breakdown, as it seems all but certain that the employees will have to appear before a court to face charges of working for an unregistered organization and distributing foreign funds illegally.

The referral of the NGO case comes one day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Egypt that America might withdraw its annual $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt if the country continued harassing the NGOs.

Egypt’s decision to push ahead on the case despite weeks of U.S. entreaties for the release of the Americans represents what is certain to be seen in Washington as an aggressive expression of anti-Americanism.

U.S. officials on Sunday demanded that the Egyptians explain the developments.

“We have seen media reports that judicial officials in Egypt intend to forward a number of cases involving U.S.-funded NGOs to the Cairo criminal court,” said Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman. “We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from the Government of Egypt.”

The moves against American NGO staff are the second reversal this weekend for American influence in a rapidly shifting Middle East. On Saturday, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-backed United Nations security resolution calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down and end his nearly year-long crackdown on a dissident uprising.

The controversy stands to unravel a long-standing diplomatic pact—that the U.S. was steadfast in its support of one of its strongest allies in the Arab world.

A budget law introduced in December will require that Mrs. Clinton certify to Congress that Egypt’s leadership has met minimum standards of human rights and has abided by a 1979 peace treaty with neighboring Israel.

“We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship in Egypt,” Secretary Clinton said during a news conference on the sidelines of a conference in Munich on Saturday. “We don’t want that.”

The targeted NGO workers include Sam LaHood, the head of the International Republican Institute’s Cairo office and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—the highest ranking Republican in the Obama administration.

The IRI and the NDI groups offer nonpartisan training for budding Egyptian politicians in campaign management, public relations and outreach.

Egyptian prosectors have accused the entities, which are financed by Congress, of operating in Egypt without a license.

But the country heads of both IRI and NDI said that the government has ignored their repeated applications for official accreditation. NDI, for its part, has operated openly, working with the ministry of foreign affairs and even helping to monitor parliamentary elections late last year.

The investigation into foreign funding for Egyptian NGOs has raised hackles on Capitol Hill, where the groups enjoy strong political backing.

IRI has close relations with the Republican Party and former presidential candidate John McCain chairs its board of directors. Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader and a Democrat, is the vice chairman of NDI.

Egypt’s government has gradually tightened the screws on U.S.-based NGOs over the past few months.

In late December, prosecutors ordered raids on the offices of at least 10 NGOs. Attorneys backed by police and military special forces searched the offices, confiscated computers and cash and sealed them shut.

Last month, Mr. LaHood was told that Egyptian prosecutors put him on a no-fly list when he attempted to board a flight to Doha, Qatar. Subsequent government statements revealed that at least six Americans are now forbidden to leave Egypt.

Rising fear that the Egyptian government would arrest the foreign NGO workers led at least three American workers to seek refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo last week.

Leaders in Egypt’s interim civilian government have repeatedly claimed that the military is powerless to halt an independent judicial investigation into foreign funding for NGOs. In response to Mrs. Clinton’s comments in Munich, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Amr, said on Sunday that while his ministry has tried to mend the fractures the foreign funding investigation has caused in the U.S.-Egypt relationship, the judiciary remains off limits.

But Egyptian and foreign civil society workers say the investigation is nakedly political.

“It seems that as protests continued in Tahrir Square, they either believed or tried to scapegoat outside movements,” said David Kramer, the executive director of Freedom House, a U.S.-funded NGO that has been targeted in the judicial investigation. “Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this is based on rule of law.”

The military has repeatedly pointed to “foreign hands” behind a wide variety of problems and deadly incidents throughout the past year. Reports of shady plots aimed at undermining Egypt play well with a population that has been fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories under generations of successive autocrats.

The uptick in harassment against American and other foreign NGOs makes clear that the Egyptian government is willing to sacrifice its lucrative alliance with the U.S. in order to salvage its own declining public prestige.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which inherited power after Mr. Mubarak stepped down last year, faced what could be its worst ever public relations crisis last week when at least 74 people were killed when Egyptian soccer fans in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said attacked spectators from the visiting Cairo-based team.

Protesters and members of Egypt’s newly elected parliament have teamed up to lambaste the council of generals, with many charging the SCAF and interior ministries of deliberately offering lax and ineffective police protection in the hopes that a violent incident would further empower the interior ministry.

Rage over the perceived police neglect sparked four days of violent demonstrations outside Cairo’s ministry of interior headquarters and in other cities throughout the country. The riots have so far killed 12 people and spilled into a fifth straight day early Monday morning, despite a series of shaky truces between protesters and police throughout Sunday.

Charles Levinson and Jay Solomon contributed to this article.

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