Wall Street Journal: Senator McCain Says Egyptian Officials are Working to Resolve Escalating Crisis Involving Pro-Democracy NGOs

U.S., Egypt Look to Settle Nerves Over Aid, Trial
The Wall Street Journal
By Matt Bradley

CAIRO — Egyptian government officials are working to resolve an escalating diplomatic feud over U.S. civil-society organizations, Sen. John McCain said during a visit to Egypt, signaling a detente only days before 16 Americans face trial on charges of having violated Egyptian laws on foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations.

Mr. McCain (R., Ariz.) and his delegation of four other senators, three of them Republicans, also hinted at warming relations between conservative American lawmakers and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group whose triumphant performance in parliamentary elections rattled U.S. nerves among U.S. policy makers.

The warm comments mark a climb down from previous threats by congressmen from both parties that the prosecution of American NGO staff will endanger the $1.3 billion in aid that Washington has given Egypt’s military each year since 1987.

Canceling the aid would rupture Washington’s alliance with one of its strongest security partners in the Middle East—a relationship that has buttressed Egypt’s peace with Israel for more than 30 years.

Despite months of warnings of a potential aid cut, the visiting senators projected a dramatically different posture toward Egypt’s government on Monday, portraying the dispute as little more than an inevitable collision between a new generation of Egyptian reformers and the repressive legal system they inherited.

Mr. McCain, who is chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute, one of the accused American NGOs, told reporters in Egypt’s capital that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s de facto president, assured the senators that the leading council of generals is “working very diligently” to “resolve” the NGO issue.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt’s newly elected Parliament also told the lawmakers that they would redraft a restrictive NGO law that the deposed regime of President Hosni Mubarak used to repress civil-society organizations.

“After talking with the Muslim Brotherhood, I was struck with their commitment to change the law because they believe it’s unfair,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who was traveling with Mr. McCain. Mr. Graham and other lawmakers praised the Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party won a plurality of nearly 50% of the seats in Parliament, as a strong potential partner for the future of U.S. relations with Egypt.

That marks a dramatic change from several months ago, when some Republican politicians reacted warily to the Brotherhood’s rising clout. In April 2011, Mr. Graham said he was suspicious of the Brotherhood’s “agenda,” and that “their motives are very much in question.”

“I was very apprehensive when I heard the election results,” Mr. Graham said on Monday. “But after visiting and talking with the Muslim Brotherhood I am hopeful that…we can have a relationship with Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood is a strong political voice.”

Sens. McCain and Graham stressed that the accused NGO employees are innocent of accusations by Egyptian officials that U.S. government-funded pro-democracy groups seek to undermine Egypt’s fragile interim government and divide the country.

Egyptian prosecutors have said Saturday that the 16 Americans and 27 other NGO workers will face trial Feb. 26 on charges of having illegally run unregistered foreign organizations and having received foreign funds without government approval. American NGO officials say the government refused to register the groups legally despite their repeated applications.

The announcement of a trial date followed nearly two months of increasingly invasive investigations of the NGO employees. The offices of three U.S. NGOs were raided and closed in late December, and prosecutors banned the seven accused Americans who still reside in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, head of the IRI’s Cairo office and son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, from leaving the country last month. Fearing arrest, some of the Americans have taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

While the charges point to violations only of the country’s law on NGOs, Egyptian government officials and state-run media have publicly accused four U.S.-based groups of paying pro-democracy protesters to incite sedition against the country’s interim government.

Members of Egypt’s civil-society community say the case is a throwback to a Mubarak-era tactic of accusing dissenters of working for foreign saboteurs.

“As an American, I’m offended that people would say things about these organizations,” said Mr. Graham, who is also on the board of Mr. LaHood’s IRI.

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