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Despite $1.5 billion in US aid, Egypt threatens prosecution of Americans

Egypt said yesterday it will prosecute a large number of people, including 19 Americans, involved in democracy promotion in the country, putting the country's US aid in extreme jeopardy.

By Staff writer / February 6, 2012

Head of Egypt's ruling military council Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi speaks during a televised address in Cairo, in this still image taken from video January 24.



When Egypt raided the offices of American democracy promotion groups in December, warnings poured out of Washington: "Your $1.5 billion in annual aid isn't as sacrosanct as you think it is."

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But Egypt has consistently upped the ante with the administration in this confrontation. The latest move came Sunday, with the military junta deciding to put 40 employees of these and other democracy promotion groups on trial – including 19 US citizens. Sam LaHood, the son of President Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is one of a group of Americans currently living in the US Embassy to avoid arrest. 

Mr. LaHood and a few of the other officials targeted by Egypt, which says it is investigating illegal foreign funding to political groups, have been barred from leaving the country. The threatened prosecutions are focused on 10 foreign and domestic groups, among them the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House, all heavily financed by US taxpayers.

At the end of January, Senator John McCain, who is friends with the LaHood family as well as chairman of IRI, warned Egypt in stark terms: "I have watched with growing alarm and outrage how the Egyptian government is treating US non-governmental organizations that are working peacefully and transparently to support civil society in Egypt."

What may be behind the confrontation is the growing paranoia of Egypt's ruling generals about continuing protests over military rule. The generals and their civilian supporters consistently warn that malevolent "foreign hands" are behind the protests. They could be prosecuting the NGOs to rally domestic support and redefine the protesters as working with foreigners against Egypt. 

"The government will not hesitate to expose foreign schemes that threaten the stability of the homeland," Faiza Aboul Naga, the Minister of International Cooperation, told the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper. Ms. Aboul Naga has spearheaded the NGO probes and sought for years to increase the share of US aid to Egypt directly under the government's control. Freedom House described Naga as a "Mubarak holdover who has been directing the assault against civil society."

Though the groups were not licensed under the Mubarak-era laws designed to control and limit civil society organizations, the American NGOs had been tolerated in Egypt for years and were in frequent communication with the authorities. If Egypt had wanted to curtail their activities, a quiet word could have done so while avoiding this blossoming diplomatic crisis.

"The Egyptian authorities are using a discredited Mubarak-era law to prosecute nongovernmental groups while proposing even more restrictive legislation,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.


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