New York Times: Egypt Set to Try Pro-democracy NGOs

February 26, 2012

U.S. Scrambles to Find Deal for Americans Facing Charges in Egypt
The New York Times

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Steven Lee Myers

CAIRO — American diplomats scrambled on Saturday to work out a deal to resolve the criminal charges against 16 Americans here on the eve of their scheduled trial in a case that has threatened to upend the 30-year alliance with Egypt.

As late as Saturday evening, United States officials said they still could not predict what would happen when the trial opens Sunday.

American diplomats, Egyptian lawyers and others involved in the case said the efforts had foundered amid a breakdown in the lines of authority within the military-led transitional government in the final months before the generals have pledged to leave power. American officials say they have tried to find Egyptian counterparts who might intercede, but Egyptian leaders say they cannot intervene in the judicial process.

If the case is not resolved, Congress and the Obama administration have vowed to cut off the $1.55 billion in annual aid to Egypt, potentially rupturing the three-way alliance among Washington, Cairo and Jerusalem that has been a linchpin of regional stability.

The 16 Americans and 27 others face criminal charges of working for unlicensed nonprofit groups and accepting foreign money to operate them. Nine of the Americans were outside Egypt when the charges were filed, and Egypt has barred the remaining seven, including the son of the United States secretary of transportation, from leaving.

The seven Americans work for a pair of federally financed nonprofit groups with close ties to the Congressional leadership, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which are chartered to promote democracy abroad. In court papers, Egyptian prosecutors accuse the groups of collaborating with the Central Intelligence Agency in a campaign to destabilize Egypt and manipulate its revolution for the benefit of the United States and Israel.

If convicted, the accused face a fine and up to six years in prison for working for unlicensed nonprofit groups, and a minimum of six years for receiving money from abroad. As of Saturday, the seven Americans in Egypt had taken refuge in the United States Embassy for fear of arrest, officials said.

American officials dismiss Egypt’s allegations of subversive aims as political grandstanding playing to domestic anti-American sentiment. The officials say it is implausible that the United States would give about $15 million a year to have the two groups undermine the Egyptian state when it spends $1.3 billion a year to support the Egyptian military.

There is no dispute that the two groups and their staffs have broken the letter of Egyptian law. Both groups sought, but never received, licenses from the Egyptian government, and both are openly financed from abroad. They therefore violate two restrictions on civil groups left over from government of Hosni Mubarak, the strongman president who was deposed a year ago. But both groups have been tolerated here for years, along with scores of Egyptian nonprofit groups that also break both rules.

American officials say that they increased financing for the groups after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster on the presumption that the restrictions would be lifted, as the Mubarak government had pledged to do as recently as two years ago. Instead, an Egyptian cabinet official held over from the Mubarak government, Fayza Abul Naga, initiated a criminal investigation that has applied the old rules with new vigor.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the matter twice with the Egyptian foreign minister, Mohamed Amr, in London on Thursday and again in Tunis on Friday, officials said.

Last week, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the International Republican Institute, left a meeting in Cairo with Egypt’s top military rulers assured that a resolution was close at hand, people briefed on the meeting said.

But the case has continued to move forward, and the American threats to cut off aid have set off a new wave of Egyptian nationalism.

American officials say they are seeking some kind of resolution that might free the seven Americans trapped here while saving face for the Egyptian authorities. Egyptian lawyers have suggested that the security agencies responsible for overseeing nonprofit groups could grant licenses to the American groups, signaling to the presiding judge that their activities were not threatening and light sentences would be in order.

The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute — headed in Egypt by Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — are best known here for offering seminars and training programs to candidates and political parties preparing to run in elections.

United States law forbids the groups from seeking to influence political results in the countries where they operate, and many people who have worked with the groups say that Egyptians across the political spectrum have taken advantage of their programs.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Steven Lee Myers from London and Tunis.