Egyptian activists react with fury to criminal trial for NGO workers

The Guardian reports: Activists and civil society groups in Egypt have reacted with fury to the announcement that 43 NGO workers – including 19 American citizens – will face a criminal trial in what critics of the government say is a politically motivated investigation into the foreign funding of pro-democracy groups.

Judge Ashraf al-Ashmawy confirmed on Monday the case had been referred to the Cairo criminal court, where the NGO workers will face charges of “accepting funds and benefits from an international organisation” to pursue an activity “prohibited by law”.

They are also accused of carrying out “political training programmes”, supporting election campaigns and illegally financing individuals and groups, the judge said in a statement.

Those involved waited in trepidation for further details. “It’s inexplicable,” said Julie Hughes, country director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). “We don’t even know what the charges are.”

“I’m trying to stay optimistic but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t stressful on me, the organisation, our families. But I’m proud of the individuals working here. We’ll hang in there.”

Hughes and 18 other Americans – including Sam LaHood, country director of the International Republican Institute and son of the US transport secretary – have been banned from leaving Egypt in relation to the case, which many see as a thinly veiled attack on pro-democracy and human rights organisations.

USA Today adds: Members of Egypt’s newly elected government refused to back off Monday from charges that 19 Americans and several other foreigners are aiding violent protests and will be tried.

Meanwhile, the United States on Monday threatened to cut off $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt for what it called an illegitimate crackdown on foreign groups known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promote democracy.

“Whoever is operating legally should be fine,” said Sobhy Saleh, whose Freedom and Justice Party is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently won the majority of seats in the Egyptian parliament. “Whether they are Islamic or not, any NGO should follow the law.”

Saleh said Egypt will not accept any violations of Egyptian law or interference of Egypt sovereignty. Hisham Abo Alnasr, a member of the high council of Egypt’s hard-line al-Nour Party, said that based on documents found during the investigation the Americans “may be considered spies.”

Egypt doesn’t need democracy training from foreigners, Alnasr said. He said the country needs training in literacy, science and health care to help it develop economically.

Steven Cook writes: Egypt’s former ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, once remarked that the U.S.-Egypt relationship was like “a mature marriage.” It seems that with the trial of 19 Americans and 16 Egyptians and 8 others affiliated with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the Egyptians are serving divorce papers. The last four decades have had many highs and quite a few lows, but now it is time to move on. What was once a strategic relationship built on the firm geo-strategic foundations of containing Soviet influence in the Middle East, forging peace between Arabs and Israelis, and helping to ensure the stability of the region is now an unhealthy codependency with no strategic rationale or direction.

The January 25th uprising was bound to alter U.S.-Egypt relations in fundamental ways if only because public sentiment matters more in the new Egypt and Washington is far from popular. Yet events of the last few weeks suggest that the trajectory of the relationship is in steeper decline than anyone expected. The NGO case is wrapped up in layers of resentment relating to Egypt’s history of foreign domination, Egyptian nationalism, and Washington’s determination to spend part of its aid package on programs that support democratic change. In the psycho-drama that bilateral relations have become, both the Egyptians and Americans want U.S. assistance to continue to flow, but for all the wrong reasons. The aid is good for Egypt’s leaders because it provides them with an opportunity to position themselves as good nationalists even though they have been feeding at the trough of international aid for many years. For Washington, the aid is the only leverage the United States has to try to influence Egyptian behavior and even though it doesn’t seem to work, lawmakers and officials are loath to give it up.

The Egyptian government in the form of Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, rails against American funding of non-governmental organizations, claiming that American money is going to groups that want to undermine the Egyptian government. In its crudest form, Naga’s campaign against the United States, USAID, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and NGOs, suggests that a “foreign hand” is seeking to bring Egypt to its knees. The claim seems laughable, especially since the same foreign hand doles out $1.3 billion a year to the Egyptian armed forces (word is that Aboul Naga is close to Field Marshal Tantawi) and Aboul Naga is supposed to be the Minister of International Cooperation. If the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the transitional cabinet are truly interested in paving the way for a democratic Egypt, shouldn’t they welcome Washington’s help? Yet as in all cases domestic politics trumps foreign policy and Aboul Naga and her military masters have a political interest in playing on the xenophobic tendencies in Egyptian society to undermine NGOs that are working toward a new, more democratic political order—precisely the opposite of what the SCAF wants.

I say we oblige Aboul Naga and wind down the aid program—including military assistance—as soon as practical. It’s hard to run against the “foreign hand” if there is no foreign hand.

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3 thoughts on “Egyptian activists react with fury to criminal trial for NGO workers

  1. rosemerry

    The USA does not even have democracy in its own country; none of these “NGOs” promote democracy. Go home and vote.

  2. dickerson3870

    I am very leery of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and I truly loathe the International Republican Institute (IRI)!

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