Financial Times: Egpyt's Crackdown on NGOs has Unleashed the Worst Crisis in U.S.-Egypt Relations

February 8, 2012

Egypt unbowed by US aid threat
Financial Times

By Heba Saleh

Egypt has said it will not be swayed by threats from Washington to cut US aid and would press on with plans for criminal court proceedings against 19 US workers in civil society groups accused of operating in the country without permission.

“Egypt will apply the law ... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons,” Kamal Ganzouri, the prime minister told a news conference in Cairo.

The decision by the Egyptian authorities to present 43 people to trial, including the 19 US citizens, has unleashed the worst crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington – two longstanding allies – since the uprising which unseated Hosni Mubarak as president last year.

If found guilty the NGO workers could face up to five years in jail.

On Tuesday, three prominent US senators warned that the continuing standoff was jeopardising congressional support for $1.55bn in financial assistance to Cairo. The senators, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Joe Lieberman, said in a joint statement that the risk of a “disastrous” rupture in relations had “rarely been greater”. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, made similar warnings last weekend.
 
The US organisations whose activities have angered the Egyptian authorities include the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute – both funded by Congress. Neither group has permission to operate in Egypt but both say they presented the necessary documents to the foreign ministry some years ago. They point out that their presence and activities were tolerated and they were given official permission to observe elections which started in November.
 
Cairo’s apparent determination to allow its relations with Washington to deteriorate so sharply at a time when it is in dire need of international economic support and seeking International Monetary Fund and World Bank support has perplexed Egyptian and US observers. But some speculate that the ruling military council is genuinely suspicious of international civil society groups, especially those working in democratisation.

“I think the generals and the intelligence service are convinced that what happened in Egypt last year was a revolution funded and sparked by foreign powers,” said an Egyptian analyst. “There has been a huge jump in funding by Washington to US groups which has enabled them to expand and open offices in Upper Egypt and elsewhere. This is probably being seen as an attempt to extend the revolution and sow discord between the army and the people.”
 
The generals, other analysts say, may have also decided that a campaign against foreigners is politically expeditious to rally nationalist feeling as pressure increases from protesters for an early handover of power to civilians. Activists have called for a general strike and continuing civil disobedience to start on Saturday, the anniversary of the toppling of Mr Mubarak.

A press conference on Wednesday by the two magistrates investigating the foreign groups tried to justify the legal proceedings and hinted that they were involved in activities threatening national security.

The US groups, according to Sameh Abu Zaid, one of the magistrates, did not pay tax, failed to obtain work permits for their foreign staff and stayed in the country on tourist visas.

There work, he said, “was purely political and had no relations to that of civil society groups”. He added that the Egyptian security and intelligence services “had repeatedly denied them permission” to register their branches in country, but they intensified their activities after last year’s revolution.
 
More damagingly, Mr Abu Zeid, seemed to be suggesting that the pro-democracy groups may have wanted to break up the country or fan sectarian tensions in it. He said a map of Egypt was found in one of their offices “dividing the country in four parts”, and that one group had conducted an opinion poll asking questions that “should not be asked” such as whether the respondent is Christian or Muslim.
 
“Their activities were purely political and had nothing to with the work of civil society groups,” he said.