Egypt accuses U.S. of using NGOs to thwart revolution

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 13, 2012 

CAIRO — Only days after a visit by the Pentagon's top general to smooth testy relations with Egypt's military rulers, the state news service on Monday released a months-old report that accuses the Obama administration of funneling cash to pro-democracy groups in Cairo after it was caught off guard by the uprising last year against longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak.

The timing of the report's release suggests that the Egyptian generals have no plans to drop charges against 16 Americans, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a criminal case that could unravel three decades of close bilateral ties. Washington has threatened to cut Egypt's annual $1.3 billion military aid package if the matter isn't resolved.

Analysts say, however, that the generals may be more focused on how prosecuting the case will help them guard their domestic interests than on the fallout in relations with the U.S.

The Americans are among 43 defendants who are accused of illegally receiving foreign money in a politically charged case against local and overseas-based nongovernmental organizations that have pushed for democratic reform before and since Mubarak's ouster a year ago. Authorities raided the groups' offices Dec. 29 and later imposed a travel ban on the accused.

The report carried by the state-run MENA service quoted Fayza Aboul Naga, the Cabinet minister who's leading the NGO crackdown, as telling a judge in the probe that the U.S. and Israel wanted to hijack the Egyptian revolution by throwing cash at Western-friendly NGOs.

Aboul Naga singled out American NGOs by name, according to the report. She said the International Republican Institute, whose Egypt program director is La Hood's son, aimed to impose the Republican Party's agenda on Cairo. She dismissed Freedom House, another of the targeted NGOs, as doing the bidding of "a Jewish lobby" that targets nations that speak critically of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"The events spun out of U.S. control and transformed into a revolution, which is why the United States decided at that time to work with all possible resources and tools to contain the situation and direct it toward the best interests of the U.S. and Israel as well," Aboul Naga was quoted as saying.

MENA reported that the investigating judges on the case had found that Washington had cut economic aid to Egypt in order to fund pro-American political factions. The judges, according to the report, found that the United States had offered "huge sums" of money to Egyptian and American NGOs that "far exceeded" what those groups had received from 2005 to 2010.

"All the evidence indicates a clear determination to abort any chance ... of promoting Egypt as a modern democracy with a strong economy," MENA quoted Aboul Naga as saying.

Members of the targeted NGOs called the accusations flimsy and said the transcript of the hearing last October was leaked this week for two purposes: to send a defiant message to the United States and to smear pro-democracy workers in the eyes of millions of Egyptians, many of whom already had regarded them with suspicion.

At every turn of the case, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has used state media to portray its crackdown as an assertion of Egyptian sovereignty after years of unchecked U.S. meddling in internal affairs.

Last week, judges in the case told journalists that the NGOs had ventured beyond their mandates of election training and had worked on projects such as mapping out military installations or building a website to promote churches in Egypt.

Helmy Rawy, the head of an Egyptian human rights NGO that has one member under investigation, said civil society groups had received U.S. funds informally for years because the government had blocked them from registering properly. Apart from the usual attacks in state media, he added, there was no real uproar until the ruling generals allowed Aboul Naga free rein to pursue the case as a way to boost the military's flagging popularity after months of violence and political setbacks to the transition.

"Her statements will definitely affect public opinion," Rawy said, "just like the scene of security forces raiding our offices did."

U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Cairo last week for talks with the Egyptian generals. An official photograph released after the meeting showed Dempsey apparently enjoying a joke with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council. The photo of the two laughing generals spread via Twitter, with activists adding tongue-in-cheek captions such as, "What crisis?"

But Dempsey remained skeptical of the Egyptian government's motivations for pushing so hard on the NGO issue, according to remarks published over the weekend by the American Forces Press Service, which had a reporter accompanying the general.

"What signal should I take from this in terms of how you see Egypt's future? Are you going to become isolated? Are you going to preserve individual freedoms or deny them?" Dempsey said he asked the generals, according to the report.

However, he added, "they don't have the answers right now."

(Al Desoukie is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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