Financial Times: Egyptian Delegation Cancels Meetings with U.S. Lawmakers as Crisis Over NGO Crackdown Grows

February 7, 2012

Egypt-US meetings cancelled amid trial row
Financial Times

By Heba Saleh in Cairo and Geoff Dyer in Washington

An Egyptian army delegation visiting Washington abruptly cancelled meetings with senior American lawmakers on Monday as US government officials warned the country’s $1.5bn aid package was in jeopardy.

Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican on the US Senate armed services committee, were among a number of congressional leaders scheduled to meet the Egyptian military representatives in the coming week.

But the delegation was recalled home after 19 US citizens, including Sam LaHood, the son of the US transportation secretary, were referred by the Egyptian authorities for criminal trial on charges of operating civil society groups without permission and receiving unauthorised foreign funding.

Mr LaHood heads the Egyptian operation of the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation funded by the US government. He is one of several foreign nationals who have been barred from travel by the Egyptian authorities in recent weeks pending investigations into the activities of their groups.

Fifteen staff members of the National Democratic Institute, another Washington-funded pro-democracy group, are also to be tried. In total, 43 people have been referred to trial, including Europeans, Egyptians and other Arab nationals.
 
Cairo’s decision to try US citizens has put in doubt $1.5bn of US aid after a warning from Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, at the weekend. “We will have to closely review these matters as it comes [to the] time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances,” she said.

The Obama administration repeated its warning on Monday. “We have underscored how serious a problem these actions are. We have said clearly that these actions could have consequences for our relationship, including regarding our assistance programs,” said Jay Carney, White House spokesman.
 
Victoria Nuland, state department spokeswoman, defended both the US-based groups operating in Egypt and local non-governmental groups. “These groups and the individuals associated with them do not fund political parties or individual candidates,” she said. “They have done nothing wrong.”
 
Under the budget approved by Congress for this year, Egypt is to receive $1.3bn in military aid and $250m in economic aid. However, allocation of the military aid requires the secretary of state to certify that Egypt is supporting the transition to a civilian government, including holding fair elections and ensuring freedom of speech.

Opposition to aid for Egypt continues to grow. On Friday, Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator who chairs the subcommittee on foreign aid, said: “We want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank cheques are over.”

More than 40 members of Congress signed a letter sent to both the Obama administration and the Egyptian military council warning that it would be difficult to maintain aid in “the absence of a quick and satisfactory resolution to this issue”.

Rabab al-Mahdi, an Egyptian political analyst, said the ruling generals appeared to be involved in a game of brinkmanship with the US but that it was unlikely they would allow the aid to be cut. She said that for the moment they seemed to be playing to nationalist sentiments in a country deeply suspicious of US intentions in the region.
 
“I think what we are seeing is part of a populist campaign on the part of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in which they take extreme positions against the US and foreign powers. It feeds into the propaganda [they have been spreading] about foreign plots to destroy Egypt.”
 
The escalation of the row between Cairo and Washington follows five days of tension in Egypt after clashes in downtown Cairo between police and protesters angry at the death of 74 people in football violence last week. The protesters accuse police and the ruling military council of complicity in the mayhem. They have been calling for the generals to step down immediately, rather than in July as scheduled after presidential elections.
 
The head of the country’s electoral commission said candidates for president would be able to present their nominations on March 10, a month earlier than planned. The new date appears to be a concession by the military council to the protesters, although it has not been made clear if the election itself will also be brought forward.