Wall Street Journal: U.S.-Egypt Hit New Low Over Egyptian Government Raid on Pro-democracy NGOs

January 30, 2012

Egypt Seeks to Smooth Ties With U.S.
The Wall Street Journal

By Charles Levinson and Matt Bradley

CAIRO—A group of senior Egyptian generals landed in Washington on Sunday to try to mend one of the most serious rifts in years with the U.S.

Relations between the longtime allies have hit a new low following an Egyptian government raid on pro-democracy and human-rights groups and travel bans imposed on several of their American employees, threatening an alliance that is a pillar of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. Congress is considering slashing the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.

The December raids on 10 nongovernmental organizations, including three American groups, were part of an investigation commissioned by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul Naga into foreign funding of NGOs. Ms. Abul Naga, who has been a minister since 2001, has pressed for a wholesale restructuring of Western aid to Egypt, and has lobbied the U.S. to shift the $250 million in American economic aid into an endowment wholly controlled by the Egyptian government. She has been particularly critical of U.S. attempts to dole out money directly to human-rights and pro-democracy groups critical of the government.

Earlier this month, Egypt banned six American and four European employees of the raided U.S. groups from leaving the country. They include Sam LaHood, director of the Egypt office of the pro-democracy International Republican Institute and son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The fracas has called attention to the growing clout of Ms. Abul Naga, one of the most powerful women in Egypt today and an outspoken foe of the U.S. Her campaign to cut off Western aid dollars to civil-society groups in Egypt has earned her the wrath of Western diplomats, including Egypt's biggest financial backers, the U.S. and the European Union, as well as of human-rights activists in Cairo.

Ms. Abul Naga, a former diplomat, has remained minister of international cooperation through a decade of cabinet shakeups and the purge of former Mubarak-regime officials after last year's Arab Spring—a remarkable feat in politically tumultuous Egypt.

Among ordinary Egyptians, her star appears to be rising, buoyed by a reputation for being honest as well as her nationalist rhetoric, vocal defiance of the West, and close ties to the military. That she seems to be gaining steam, even as she damages Egypt's relationships with Washington and European capitals, is another sign that the new Egypt could be headed toward an increasingly fractious relationship with the U.S. and the West.

Ms. Abul Naga declined to comment for this article.

The Egyptian delegation will be in Washington for more than a week, U.S. officials said, for meetings at the State Department, with members of Congress and at the Pentagon. The raids and travel bans are likely to be discussed, these officials said. They said the State Department will make clear that U.S. financial assistance to Egypt could be cut if more progress isn't made on democratic reforms in coming months.

"This isn't something we want to see happen," said a U.S. official. "But the Egyptians need to understand that there are certain requirements they need to meet in order to placate Capitol Hill."

In Cairo, Western diplomats say something resembling an international coalition has formed in opposition to Ms. Abul Naga.

"It is meant to be a loud and clear, totally consistent international message that what she is doing is terrible for Egypt," said a senior Western diplomat in Cairo. "We would like to offer a solution which would entail working with her and the Egyptian authorities to offer our experience of how to form a legal framework for working effectively with the NGO community."

A senior foreign ministry official said Ms. Abul Naga is pushing just policies that enjoy broad support within Egypt. "The state has a right to know what is going on within its own borders," said the official.

"Her message is that Egypt is a sovereign state, with a legitimate government, that doesn't surrender to the threats from Washington," said Moataz A. Fattah, a professor of political science at Cairo University who also advises the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood—a party that is also fiercely critical of U.S. policy in the region—has already emerged as the dominant force in Egypt, capturing 47% of seats in the lower house of Parliament. It looks poised for another strong showing in the voting for Egypt's mostly symbolic upper house, which began Sunday.

In recent months, Ms. Abul Naga has emerged as one of the interim government's most visible faces. Her growing popularity has led to speculation that she could be considering a presidential bid in the June election. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, she carved out a power base by cultivating close ties with the military, according to people close to the former regime. To some Egyptians, a secular female president who enjoys the military's trust would be the perfect antidote to fears of an Islamist takeover.

In June, Ms. Abul Naga was among the most outspoken opponents to an International Monetary Fund loan that Egypt needed to replenish its rapidly diminishing foreign reserves. Her decision was widely criticized by economists. The Egyptian government has since reversed course and is in talks with the IMF about the loan.

In July, Ms. Abul Naga tapped a team of Egyptian prosecutors to investigate the foreign funding of civil-society organizations in Egypt. The NGO offices were raided in December as part of that probe. The raids triggered a series of angry phone calls from top U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, who elicited a pledge by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's top general and leader of the interim government, to reopen the groups' offices and return seized materials. That has yet to happen.

"She unleashed a judicial inquiry thinking she can control it, but it appears that now she can't," said the senior Western diplomat.

Jay Solomon and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.