The Cable Looks at Who is Behind Egpyt's Crackdown on NGOs
In private phones calls this week, a top State Department official has been sending the message that the Egyptian military leadership is not behind the recent raids on NGO organizations and the prosecutions of aid workers, including American citizens.
According to three NGO officials with knowledge of the conversations, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has been calling around to various stakeholders to keep them informed on the ever-worsening saga involving charges against 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, who stand accused of fomenting anti-government protests in Cairo. Part of Burns's message has been that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took executive power last February after ousting President Hosni Mubarak, may not ultimately be behind the raids or necessarily in favor of the prosecutions that resulted.
"We are keeping the affected NGOs apprised of our efforts to resolve this situation," a State Department official told The Cable. "There is a vacuum of authority. We have been directly pressing the authorities in Cairo, including the SCAF, although they may not be the driving force behind this."
The American Embassy in Cairo has claimed in similar discussions that the SCAF was surprised by the Dec. 29 raids on several NGOs, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House, the NGO officials said. The raids were reportedly conducted by Interior Ministry forces, not army soldiers.
The Obama administration has an interest in drawing a distinction between the actions of the SCAF, with which the United States has maintained a multi-decade alliance, and other parts of the Egyptian government, including the judiciary and the Ministry of International Cooperation, run by Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
For the NGO officials, the distinction is less important because they believe that the SCAF should exert more influence over Abul-Naga to stop the prosecutions and harassment of NGO groups, even if military leaders are not personally responsible for them.
"The SCAF is running the country, and whether they knew about the raids or not is beside the point. They bear ultimate responsibility for what is going on," one NGO official said. "She's the public face of this campaign and if they want to they can put pressure on her."
The United States' annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt is now under intense scrutiny in Washington. Many in the NGO community and on Capitol Hill believe the State Department is trying to defend the aid as a means of preserving what's left of the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, which has been a linchpin in maintaining U.S. influence in the region and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman was dispatched to Cairo to confront the Egyptian government about the raids. He told the Egyptian media during that trip, "The administration has continued to make a very strong case for our assistance to Egypt."
That was before the Egyptian judiciary refused to let aid workers leave Cairo and decided to charge them with criminal offenses, including Sam Lahood, the Cairo head of IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jake Walles led a classified briefing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, after which senators who participated complained that they had heard no real plan to end the crisis. Those same lawmakers said the administration was working valiantly on the issue, but with no measurable success.
Lawmakers could propose legislation to immediately cut off assistance to the SCAF, rather than wait until the administration is required to certify that Egypt has met new, more stringent conditions placed on the annual aid package, but Congress isn't quite there yet.
"The Egyptians ought to know what they're doing charging and detaining Americans on what I believe are trumped-up charges is endangering the aid we are giving them," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable Tuesday. "We have a real interest in having good relations with Egypt because they have a central role in the region. On the other hand we can't just sit back and let them do what they're doing with the NGOs."
In a stream of statements Tuesday, a drumbeat of top lawmakers threatened to support withholding aid to Egypt if the NGO situation isn't resolved. "Congressional support for Egypt -- including continued financial assistance -- is in jeopardy," Lieberman said in a press statement along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the board of IRI.
"Yesterday's prosecutions are frankly a slap in the face to Americans who have supported Egypt for decades and to Egyptian individuals and NGOs who have put their futures on the line for a more democratic Egypt," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Tuesday.
"This is not the way an ally should be treated. I believe that we should re-evaluate the status of our bilateral relationship during this transition period," said SFRC member Ben Cardin (D-MD).
"The Egyptian government's actions cannot be taken lightly and warrant punitive actions against certain Egyptian officials, and consideration of a cutoff of U.S. assistance to Egypt," said House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"Continuing down this path will make it increasingly difficult for Congress to provide military and economic assistance to Egypt and for the Administration to certify legal requirements necessary for aid to move forward," said House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY).
For its part, the Egyptian government is projecting calm. In a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said that the prosecutions will go forward. "Egypt will apply the law... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons," he said.
If the State Department truly believes that the judiciary and international cooperation ministries are solely to blame for the NGO crisis in Egypt, it's possible U.S. diplomats got that information directly from the Egyptian government.
At last weekend's meeting of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr professed that the executive branch in Egypt had no role and no influence over the NGO cases. "We are doing our best to contain this but…we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," he said, eliciting scoffs of disbelief from the audience.