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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.

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On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly implied she had told her Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Amr that Egypt's aid was at risk if the country did not back down, and that followed a week of more explicit warnings from lawmakers. "We will have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances," she told reporters in Munich.

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Congress recently attached conditions to Egypt's aid, requiring that the military keep the peace with Israel, demonstrate steps towards handing over full power to civilians, and make progress on human rights before aid would be released.

"The Egyptian military is clearly not meeting at least two of those three conditions right now. Consequently, the Obama administration should not certify compliance, nor should it invoke the national security waiver by arguing that Egyptian-Israeli peace is paramount and that Egypt’s military is the only bulwark against Islamist domination of the country – because both of these arguments are deeply flawed," Michelle Dunne and Shuja Nawaz wrote in the New York Times last Friday. Ms. Dunne is a former State Department official and National Security Council staffer focused on the Middle East.

Egypt is in desperate need of foreign assistance. Tourism and investment have collapsed since the uprising began and capital flight has seen foreign exchange reserves more than halved to about $15 billion, enough to cover about three months of imports. Despite Egypt's shaky finances, the junta has continued to take a series of steps that are going to make it harder for aid to flow.

In addition to going after NGOs, foreign and domestic, the most famous actor in Egypt was given a three month jail sentence last week for "insulting Islam" in his film roles over the years. Adel Imam is probably one of the two or three most popular actors in the Arab world.

That sentence was handed down with the military, not the Islamists that dominated recent parliamentary elections, in the driver's seat. Though parliament has convened, Egypt's system concentrates power in the hands of the executive. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) currently occupying the executive role has repeatedly signaled it wants its political influence to extend to the writing of a new constitution. Presidential elections have been promised for later this year.

US democracy NGOs have run into trouble with the Egyptian government in the past, but not to this extent. The work of IRI and NDI in Egypt was suspended for months in 2006, again at the instigation of Aboul Naga, but there were no prosecutions or threats of arrest. The two groups eventually worked out an arrangement with the Mubarak government to resume highly-monitored outreach efforts.

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