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U.S. Wins Release of NGO Workers, Aid to Egypt Still Vulnerable

WASHINGTON, Mar 1 2012 (IPS) - After weeks of political pressure from the U.S., Egyptian officials announced Wednesday that the remaining employees of two U.S. government-supported organisations facing a criminal investigation would be permitted to leave the country.

Although the indictments remain in effect, the decision casts light on the tenuous nature of non-profit and NGO work in Egypt and future levels of financial support from foreign donors.

The announcement comes on the heels of intense diplomatic maneuvering last week, including a U.S. delegation to Cairo led by Senator John McCain, chairman of the International Republican Institute (IRI), an employer of several of the U.S. citizens now facing charges surrounding alleged involvement in illegally funded activities deemed harmful to the Egyptian state.

Sam Lahood, son of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Roy Lahood, is one of the 43 that are slated for trial.

Prominent among discussions between U.S. and Egyptian officials was the fate of Egypt’s roughly 1.5 billion dollars in U.S. aid appropriated for fiscal year 2012.

As negotiations between U.S. and Egyptian officials took place, three judges overseeing the indictments recused themselves after an announcement that the court would adjourn until Apr. 26, pending further inquiry. The recusal was an apparent protest by the judges to avoid perceptions of political meddling in the cases.

The charges stem from raids conducted by Egyptian officials in December 2011 that ended in multiple charges and confiscated property from offices of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and IRI – Congressionally-financed organisations officially tasked with “non- partisan” efforts in “democracy promotion”.

Since the 1990s, IRI has been implicated in a number of attempted coups d’etat abroad, including a successful Haitian coup in 1994.

Several lawmakers here greeted the news with a mixed sense of jubilance and foreboding.

“I want to recognise the efforts of the Egyptian interim ruling military government for making the right decision in facilitating the release of these American NGO workers,” Senator James Inhofe, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Foreign Relations, said Thursday.

“The U.S. must continue our strong military-to-military relationship with Egypt… I will continue to monitor the situation in Egypt closely and, should radicals highjack the democratic process, respond accordingly,” Inhofe added.

Earlier this year, U.S. lawmakers voted to make financial aid contingent on continued, verifiable political reform in Egypt.

Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former member of the Bush administration’s National Security Council, cast the recent announcement as a small concession made by the Egyptian government in what he considers to be a series of egregious crackdowns on U.S. NGOs.

“(T)he government of Egypt has not said that promoting democracy and human rights is welcome, as it should be in any country seeking to build a democratic system, rather than considered to be a criminal offense… In fact, the situation of NGO staff may still be worse in Egypt 2012, ‘after the revolution,’ than it was under the Mubarak dictatorship.”

“If that turns out to be true, the Egyptian government should not be rewarded by a full renewal of our aid program,” Abrams wrote on his blog Thursday.

Some were more critical of the decision to lift travel restrictions.

“Erratic due process is blatantly irreconcilable with independent judiciary and genuine democracy,” Mohammad ElBaradei, former candidate in Egypt’s presidential elections set for May 2012, said in his Twitter feed on Thursday.

Despite the intensifying rhetoric from both U.S. and Egyptian officials about the role of NGOs in Egyptian civil society, thousands of organisations based out of Egypt that work on a spectrum of issues from public health to environmental protection have landed in the middle of a debate about foreign financing, the outcome of which may determine the feasibility of their work in the coming months.

Under current Egyptian law, organisations are barred from receiving foreign funding without official approval in what amounts to one of the world’s most restrictive set of statutes regarding foreign and domestic NGOs. Much is left to the discretion of Egyptian military authorities, particularly the Supreme Council of Armed Forces.

“Today’s action didn’t go far enough. We have been calling for changes in the unfair laws that oversee NGOs that really muzzle civil society. These are the old Mubarak regime rules and this just goes to show that Mubarak’s rules are still in play… The space for NGOs’ activity in Egypt is narrowed,” Geoffrey Mock, an expert on Egypt at Amnesty International, told IPS.

“The state of emergency has to go. If the state of emergency goes, if the associations law gets changed, there are things that can happen that can open Egypt to a new political future and there are still people in Egypt to make that happen,” Mock added.

Questioned on how the indictments will effect the U.S. State Department’s report on political in transition in Egypt – an assessment U.S. lawmakers will use to decide whether or not Egypt receives the Obama administration’s aid requests for this year – State Department Press Secretary Victoria Nuland avoided making a definitive appraisal.

“I am not going to speak to how the decisions will be made, when the time comes… We continue to want to see the NGO situation settled in a manner that allows all NGOs, our own, European NGOs, other international NGOs and Egyptian NGOs to be registered. We think that’s part and parcel of the democratic transition,” Nuland said on Thursday.

“Many Americans believed that Egyptians would welcome American democracy promotion efforts since there has been broad public support in Egypt for both democracy in general and the ouster of the anti- democratic regime of Hosni Mubarak in particular,” Mark Tessler, a professor of International Relations at the University of Michigan, said Thursday.

“But in fact, the survey we conducted in Egypt just this summer showed that a solid majority of the Egyptian public distrusts American foreign policy and this includes American democracy promotion activities in their country…

“However laudable their objectives – and in Egypt at least, however congruent with the goals of the vast majority of ordinary men and women – these groups will be viewed the way U.S. foreign policy is viewed, and in Egypt that view is not favourable,” Tessler added.


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