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NGO Prosecution Puts U.S.-Egyptian Ties at Risk

WASHINGTON, Feb 7 2012 (IPS) - The ongoing controversy over the activities of U.S. and other foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Egypt appears to be bringing ties between the two countries to their lowest point in nearly 40 years.

The criminal prosecution of some 43 NGO activists, including 19 U.S. nationals, on charges that they failed to register with the authorities and carried out illegal political activities has drawn unprecedented criticism from both the administration of President Barack Obama and powerful lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill.

At stake are at least the 1.3 billion dollars in annual military aid that the U.S. has provided the Egyptian army since the U.S.-mediated Camp David Accord with Israel was signed in 1979. That aid has served as the anchor for one of Washington’s most important bilateral relationships in the Arab world.

“This has the potential for changing the paradigm of the relationship,” said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland. “When you look at Egypt, the key allies of the U.S. have been the military and intelligence institutions.”

“The complete rewriting of those relationships would be a major headache for the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community,” he told IPS.

Indeed, that very concern was voiced Monday by Pentagon spokesman George Little whose boss, Leon Panetta, has reportedly personally spoken twice with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, about the controversy over the last two weeks.

“The bottom line is that the United States believes this issue needs to be resolved very quickly,” he told reporters. “It’s important that we push through this issue in order to continue our cooperation, which we’re doing.”

So far, the signs of any reconciliation are hard to find. A quiet visit here last week by the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Murad Muwafi, failed to achieve a breakthrough in the case, which hit the headlines here Dec. 29 when the authorities raided 17 NGO offices.

The list includes those used by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute (IRI), Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalists, as well as Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung.

Several Egyptian NGOs, including the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession and the Budgetary and Human Rights Rights Observatory, were also raided.

Last Sunday, the military-led government announced it intended to put 19 U.S. citizens, including the head of IRI’s office, Sam LaHood, as well as two dozen other foreigners and Egyptians, on trial. LaHood, who, with several of his compatriots, took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, is the son of Transportation Secretary Roy Lahood, a popular former congressman and the only Republican in Obama’s cabinet.

In another setback, a SCAF delegation, which has been here for several days as part of a regular high-level consultation between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, reportedly cancelled meetings with key senators on Capitol Hill scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

The delegation was scheduled to meet with Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, the committee’s ranking Republican, who Tuesday suggested that bilateral ties need to be thoroughly reassessed.

“I think we have to have every aspect of our relationship with Egypt examined until these people are removed from any indictment and allowed to leave or do whatever they need to do,” McCain, who also serves as president of IRI, told reporters after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, added his own warning: “This is a dangerous game that risks damaging both Egypt’s democratic prospects and the U.S.- Egyptian bilateral relationship,” he told his committee Tuesday.

In addition to LaHood, indictments were issued against Egyptian, German, and Serb staff members of the five groups. While some of the U.S. staff are in Egypt and have been forbidden to leave the country, others are based at their home offices, according to the State Department.

The moves against the NGOs come in the wake of elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won nearly half the seats in parliament, and the Salafi fundamentalist party, Al-Nur, claimed another 29 percent.

Most analysts here had anticipated that Washington would have a difficult time adjusting to the Islamist domination of post- revolutionary Egyptian politics, so it has come as a considerable surprise here that the main source of tension for the moment has been driven by the one Egyptian institution – the military – that has been long been considered most deferential toward U.S. interests.

In exchange for a steady supply of U.S. assistance over the last 33 years, the military has not only guaranteed the peace with Israel. It has also cooperated closely with U.S. intelligence and counter- terrorism efforts, acted as an important counterweight to “radical” forces in the region, such as Iran, and until recently, maintained sufficient control over Palestinian politics to ensure that they did not prove too troublesome to either Washington or Tel Aviv.

Nonetheless, the Egyptian military has long been distrustful at best, openly hostile at worst, of NGOs, particularly those receiving foreign funding. The Mubarak regime banned all foreign aid that was not channelled through or approved by government agencies and harassed, prosecuted, and sometimes imprisoned activists who received any.

That ban remains on the books, and even more restrictive legislation has been tabled in parliament.

Since taking over last year, the SCAF has accused “foreign hands” of working to subvert the country’s unity and stability. This notion has been bolstered by the Obama administration’s disbursement over the past nine months of up to 65 million dollars in “democracy-promotion” assistance channelled through various government agencies and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

The NED is a Congressionally funded organisation created in 1982 in major part to fund the kind of political activities overseas that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had previously done covertly. The IRI, which was implicated in an attempted coup d’etat in Venezuela in 1992 and a successful coup in Haiti in 1994, and NDI are funded by NED.

“Egyptian human rights groups that are being accused of pursuing foreign agendas know that this is ludicrous,” according to Sheila Carapico, a University of Richmond expert on Arab politics and NGOs.

“But, on the other hand, they’re aware that IRI and the other U.S.- funded organisations are not purely apolitical in their activities. The U.S. government funds these organisations because, according to the government’s annual appropriations request, they further the U.S. national interest.”

Indeed, the latter perception is widely held among the general public in Egypt, according to a recent Gallup poll that found that more than seven in 10 Egyptian respondents opposed U.S. assistance to both NGOs and the Egyptian military.

“There is the perception that the money is not going for the public good – that it’s going instead into buying foreign policy loyalty, buying services that undermine Egypt’s leverage, and into corruption and institutions that people are increasingly suspicious of,” according to Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion who has conducted annual polls of public opinion in Egypt and five other Arab countries over the past 10 years.

Both the U.S. and the Egyptian military, he told IPS, find themselves pursuing contradictory policies that result in mixed signals on both sides.

“On the one hand, there is no question that the U.S. sees the military institution as one of the principal levers it has in influencing the direction that Egypt takes,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s this fear, particularly in the White House and, to some extent, in the State Department – that the military is trying to slow down democratic change and even, in some views, reverse it.”

“As for the Egyptian military, they want to send the message that they are a reliable partner, the defender of Camp David, the stabiliser on the one hand,” he said. “On the other hand, they feel the need to establish legitimacy internally where the public is not sympathetic to the peace treaty with Israel and sees the U.S. as a threat.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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