Wall Street Journal: Evidence Agasint NGOs is Well-worn Egyptian Conspiracy Theories Often Peddled by Populist Politicians
CAIRO — Foreign nongovernmental organizations are working to manipulate Egypt’s postrevolutionary politics, two Egyptian judges said on Wednesday, in the latest signal that Egypt won’t back down from an investigation that has bruised relations with one of America’s strongest security partners in the Middle East.
For the first time since the inquiry began last summer, the investigating judges detailed a body of evidence, including seized maps, videos and cash, they say implicates 43 civil-society workers, including at least 16 Americans, in acts of ill-defined political subterfuge.
Justices Sameh Abu Zaid and Ashraf Al Ashmawi addressed reporters followed a speech by Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, in which he reiterated that Egyptian prosecutors wouldn’t call off the probe despite escalating threats from Congress that it was jeopardizing the U.S.’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
The charges against the Americans, who include Sam LaHood, the head of the International Republican Institute’s Cairo office and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have brought Congress closer to canceling the military funding that has buttressed America’s influence in Egypt for decades.
In Washington on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is concerned that the investigation “could have implications for the whole relationship, including our ability to deliver the assistance that we have planned…to support Egypt in its democratic transition and the traditional assistance that we provide for security purposes. We do not want that to happen.”
Activists and NGO workers say Egypt’s ruling military council has scapegoated the NGOs for the violent protests that have unsettled Egypt’s yearlong transition to democracy.
But the gambit could be expensive for the military, which has ruled Egypt since street protesters forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office last year.
The escalating flap follows a week of fast-deteriorating relations between Egypt and the U.S.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will travel to Egypt to negotiate with the military over the fate of the Americans. A delegation of Egyptian generals cut a trip to the U.S. short last week before meeting with several congressmen.
The obvious risk to the American aid indicates that while the foreign-funding accusation may be tailored to public consumption, the ruling generals may also believe their own story, said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York based Century Foundation.
He said the military leadership may be confused that protests and unrest have persisted even after Egypt’s Islamists—the powerful opponents of the old regime—incorporated themselves into the country’s emerging democracy.
“How can there be mass mobilization and protest without the Brotherhood? From the start, they have really been baffled by this,” Mr. Hanna said, referring to Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood organization. “There’s a deep-seated belief in some sections of the government that foreign interference is happening.”
Egyptian diplomats have repeatedly said they are powerless to halt the prosecutions because the judiciary is independent.
But in Wednesday’s speech, Mr. al-Ganzouri pledged not to back down from American pressure and accused Western countries of “turning against” Egypt following the revolution.
In describing their evidence, most of which came from raids on the NGO offices in late December, the judges seemed to allude to a well-worn Egyptian conspiracy theory, often peddled by populist politicians, that the U.S. hopes to stoke sectarian conflict in Egypt as a prelude to an armed invasion.
The justices said they had found maps of Egypt marked with four divisions—a thinly veiled reference to supposed American plans to divide the country into competing religious and ethnic fiefdoms.
“It is our view that these people have not done anything wrong, that they have been endeavoring to demonstrate that by cooperating with judicial authorities,” said Ms. Nuland. “Even in the Mubarak times, we wanted to have these groups register, and they have been denied registration. So from that perspective, there is something more going on here than a purely judicial process.”
American NGO workers in Egypt, six of whom prosecutors have banned from leaving the country, said they used the maps to plan monitoring missions during parliamentary elections late last year.
One foreign NGO had also sought help from a local organization to launch a Web page listing the number and locations of churches, as well as identifying army deployments and installations throughout the country, the judges said.
Judge Abu Zeid said the website plans pointed to political activities outside the NGOs’ mandate.
The evidence raised the question of whether the NGO employees will still be charged with violating a highly restrictive law governing foreign funding for organizations, as prosecutors have announced previously, or whether they will face more-severe espionage charges.
Judge Al Ashmawi said the 43 suspects would be charged under criminal law, not the NGO law—a distinction NGO employees said wasn’t entirely clear.
If convicted, the charges related to the NGO law carry a financial penalty and up to five years in prison.
NGO workers in Cairo said they are meeting with their lawyers to determine the exact nature of the accusations. Despite repeated comments to the media, prosecutors have yet to officially charge the NGO workers.
The targeted Americans work for four NGOs, some of which have close connections to Capitol Hill and operate at least partly from government financing. In addition to Mr. LaHood’s IRI, Egyptian prosecutors are investigating the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists.
Corrections & Amplifications
The four nongovernmental organizations whose employees are under investigation in Egypt operate at least partly from U.S. government financing, and some have strong connections with Capitol Hill. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that they operated almost entirely on congressional financing and all had strong strong connections with Capitol Hill.