Anger over NGO trial threatens Egypt's interim government

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 12, 2012 

CAIRO — Just days after American civil society workers were whisked from Egypt to avoid a politically charged trial, outrage over the case has built into a push this week by the newly seated Parliament to bring down the caretaker government.

Anger over the government's essentially having abandoned the criminal case against American employees of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, has united the typically disharmonious factions in Egypt's Islamist-dominated legislature in a bid to dissolve the Cabinet led by military-appointed Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, who's often criticized as a relic from the days of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

Legislators also are debating whether to continue accepting the annual $1.3 billion U.S. military aid package, a decades-old tradeoff for Egypt's guarding of American interests in the region and honoring a peace treaty with Israel.

The defiant tenor of the parliamentary debate, echoed at demonstrations and on the presidential campaign trail, conveys a clear message: Washington prevailed one last time in the NGO trial, but the days of Egypt succumbing to such pressure are numbered.

"The West and the Egyptian government have to know that the time of political weakness and fabricated policies is gone, and we're no longer in the era of Mubarak or his son, the president-in-waiting," said Gamal Sultan, a Cairo-based researcher of Islamist movements who recently launched an independent newspaper called The Egyptians. "Any incoming government will be dealing with the United States with a measure of respect but won't be ruling the country under political pressure or for any interest but the nation's."

While Egypt's transitional law holds that only the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces can dissolve the interim government, a no-confidence vote from Parliament, backed up by disruptive demonstrations, would effectively begin the countdown to Ganzouri's departure.

Sultan and other political commentators said it was too soon to tell whether legislators would try to muster street support behind the plan or be satisfied with a symbolic vote that's sure to be vetoed by the ruling council. Discussion on the matter continued in Monday's session, with no further action.

"Removing or straightening up this government depends on how serious the Parliament is," Sultan said. "Are they willing to really remove Ganzouri or are they just bluffing?"

Politicians said the choreographed case against the NGOs was such an infringement on judicial powers that, after a series of other governmental missteps, Parliament simply couldn't brush the matter aside in favor of a smooth, scheduled transfer of power after presidential elections in May.

A shorthand version of the government's conduct in the NGO case is: Raid American and Egyptian nonprofit offices in a popular assertion of sovereignty, smear their pro-democracy activists in court and the media as chaos-sowing spies, rebuke diplomatic efforts to resolve the matter quietly, and then face a furious public after caving to U.S. pressure and allowing the American defendants to flee. Those defendants included Sam LaHood, the Egypt program director of the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute and son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Even among Cairo's NGO community, there's disappointment and anger that the Americans "abandoned" their Egyptian colleagues, who are still on trial on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds. The sole American suspect who refused to leave with the others, reportedly out of solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues, has become a sort of mascot for the accused NGO workers.

"It's not only a sham and a shame, it's something deeper, it shows the defects in the political system itself," said Nader Bakkar, spokesman for the ultraconservative Nour Party, whose leaders are still holding internal talks on how far to push the no-confidence vote.

In addition to supporting a no-confidence vote, a majority of Parliament backed a series of steps aimed at the United States, according to a report in the state-backed Al-Ahram newspaper. One called for the prosecution of the officials who approved lifting the travel ban on the Americans in the NGO case. Another urged the refusal of the annual U.S. aid. The third demanded the release of Egyptian prisoners in the United States, including the so-called "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

If the interim government is toppled, it would be replaced by one appointed by a Parliament dominated by the historic Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. The second-biggest bloc is the Salafist movement, made up of Islamists who follow an austere, Saudi-style doctrine.

"We hope that members of the American Congress listen carefully to the decision of the Egyptian Parliament — the Parliament of the revolution — and know quite well that the Egyptian people will never accept tinkering with the sovereignty of Egypt or that American assistance will be used to humiliate it," Ahram quoted Speaker Saad el Katatni, a Brotherhood veteran, as saying Sunday.

Youth movements, liberals, moderate Islamists and other revolutionary blocs also support the no-confidence vote, though some lawmakers have concerns that the move would delay presidential elections set for May and slow the transfer to full civilian authority.

None, however, dispute the military-appointed government's disaster-ridden stewardship of the transition. The NGO debacle came only weeks after security lapses at a sports arena in the city of Port Said led to a riot that killed more than 70 people, mostly young Egyptian soccer fans. There was talk then, too, of bringing down the government, in protest of the security vacuum.

In recent months, the ruling generals and their appointed Cabinet also have faced criticism for the sloppy trial of Mubarak and his cronies, the prosecution of civilians in military courts, several instances of media censorship and intimidation, and a sharp rise in violent crimes because of the lack of police in the streets. Demonstrations gather sporadically, only to be put down with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons in scenes reminiscent of the uprising that toppled Mubarak.

Meanwhile, Egypt's presidential race — the first since Mubarak's ouster — is heating up, with candidates seizing on the NGO case as campaign-trail fodder for speeches on building a new, sovereign Egypt that serves neither the United States nor any other foreign master.

"We saw how the dignity of our country was insulted when the American NGOs were evacuated," Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood stalwart who's considered a top contender in the presidential race, told hundreds of young supporters who applauded and whistled at a recent campaign stop.

"Egypt is not owned by anyone but Egyptians!" Aboul Fotouh concluded, to the loudest cheers of the evening. "We shouldn't allow anyone to offend our country anymore."

(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this report.)

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