Wall Street Journal: Egypt’s Prosecution of NGO Employees Threatens to Rupture Relationship With U.S.

Egypt Sets Date for NGO Trial
The Wall Street Journal
Matt Bradley

CAIRO—Egyptian judicial authorities announced on Saturday that 43 civil society workers, including at least 16 Americans, will face trial on Feb. 26 over illegal foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations, diminishing hopes that Washington and Cairo might reach a diplomatic, rather than a legal, resolution to the worsening flap.

Egypt’s prosecution of the NGO employees on charges of illegally distributing foreign funds and running unregistered organizations threatens to rupture a strategic relationship that has formed a bulwark of Middle East security for more than a generation.

The case has pushed the U.S. Congress closer than ever before to canceling the $1.3 billion in annual military aid the U.S. has given Egypt since 1987.

It also raises the troubling prospect that six of the indicted Americans who still live in Egypt could soon face arrest, though NGO employees reached on Saturday said they expect to appear in court without being detained.

The trial date also creates an awkward moment for the U.S. State Department. At least three of the seven indicted Americans who still live in Egypt are currently taking refuge at the U.S. Embassy as guests of the American ambassador, including Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

Those Americans declined to comment on Saturday as to whether or not they would attend the trial.

If convicted of the charges, the NGO employees could face a financial penalty and up to five years in prison.

The prosecution’s decision to set a trial date defies an ongoing American diplomatic push to ease sharpening tensions between the allies.

Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican in the Senate Armed Services Committee, visits early next week to discuss the issue with the country’s interim military leadership, including its de facto president, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.

His visit follows a trip last weekend by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. In comments on Tuesday, Gen. Dempsey said Egypt’s ruling generals may have underestimated the seriousness of the rift the NGOs investigation opened between Washington and Cairo.

Leslie Campbell, the Middle East regional director for the National Democratic Institute, one of the four U.S.-based groups involved in the case, said Saturday that he is holding out hope that a negotiated resolution will keep the NGO employees from serving time in prison.

“I don’t think that this precludes continued dialogue and continued talks,” said Mr. Campbell of the announced trial date.

Despite the increasingly urgent diplomacy, Egypt’s military-appointed government has allowed the investigation to continue while claiming that the case against the NGO employees is an independent judicial matter beyond its control.

But NGO employees say the charges amount to little more than political theater aimed at deflecting criticism for Egypt’s faltering democratic transition away from the ruling military leadership.

The council of generals who have led Egypt since a revolution last year have made a habit of blaming nebulous foreign plots for periodic outbreaks of sectarian violence, protests, labor strikes and the country’s declining economy.

Political rancor over the case has grown louder from both sides over the past week.

The presidents of the four U.S.-based NGOs who face inquiries by Egyptian authorities testified before Congress earlier this week. Some of them urged lawmakers to break ties with Fayza Aboul Naga, an Egyptian cabinet minister they characterized as the “ringleader” of the NGO dust-up.

Ms. Aboul Naga, Egypt’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, launched the foreign funding case last summer when her ministry published a report implicating American NGOs in Egypt’s ongoing unrest.

Meanwhile, state-run Egyptian newspapers published excerpts from Ms. Aboul Naga’s testimony this week. In her comments to investigators, the minister said the U.S. government was using the NGOs to sow chaos and sectarian discord to weaken Egypt and prevent it from standing up to Israel.

“Evidence indicates an unequivocal desire and persistence to thwart any attempt at Egypt’s progress as a modern democratic country with a strong economy since that will pose a threat to Israel and American interests,” Ms. Aboul Naga said, according to prosecutors’ list of evidence against the NGO employees.

While the Egyptian government says 19 Americans have been indicted in the case, the U.S. Department of State has said that only 16 of the people named by the Ministry of Judiciary are in fact U.S. citizens.

All of the indicted employees work for four organizations that receive at least part of their funding from the U.S. government. They include the International Republic Institute, which is aligned with the Republican Party, NDI, which is aligned with the Democrats, Freedom House and a Washington-based international advocacy organization for journalists.

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