Egypt moves to defuse crisis over NGO trials

What exactly is happening isn't clear yet. But it seems fairly certain that Egypt's ruling junta is backing away from the prosecution of NGO workers that led to the worst US-Egypt diplomatic crisis in decades.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Thursday, Dec. 29 file photo, workers from a non-governmental organization National Democratic Institute, or NDI, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo, Egypt.

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The AP is reporting, citing unnamed "Egyptian officials," that the country has lifted the travel ban on seven American NGO workers currently being tried in absentia for their democracy promotion work.

There's no word yet on whether the mass trial of democracy workers, whose defendants include Egyptians, Americans, Germans, Serbians, Palestinians, and Jordanians, will be called off. And what "unnamed" officials say is far from bankable, particularly in Egypt. Expect some confusing and contradictory statements out of Egypt in the hours and days ahead. 

But it seems fairly clear that the military junta now running Egypt is backing away from the politically motivated travel ban and trials, perhaps realizing that the country's more than $1 billion annual military subsidy from the US was about to turn in a pumpkin. The Obama administration must eventually either certify that Egypt is making progress on democracy and human rights, or issue a national security waiver explaining why US interests are served by providing money despite a lack of progress.

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As a political question, that would be an impossible ask for Obama while the American NGO workers are still facing jail time in Egypt. That's not least because of who Egypt's military rulers have targeted.

Among those charged were employees of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Though all three groups are described as "nongovernment organizations" they nevertheless have close ties to the government, receiving much of their funding form the National Endowment for Democracy. IRI and NDI are packed with former Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle, making them friends and colleagues with senior US legislators.

Among the seven Americans banned from leaving Egypt is (or was) Sam LaHood, son of the former Congressmen and current Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sixteen American in all have been charged, with none in the box on the first day of the trial on Sunday. Nine left the country weeks ago. The remaining seven have been holed up at the US Embassy in Cairo, among them Mr. LaHood. The trial proceedings ended quickly on Sunday, with the next date set for the end of April. Three judges on the panel quickly resigned over unexplained "discomfort" with the proceedings.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, senior generals, and the White House directly have all leaned heavily on Egypt's Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to drop the prosecution for weeks. At a Senate hearing yesterday, Ms. Clinton said "we've had a lot of very tough conversations (with Egypt) and I think we're ... moving toward a resolution." She dismissed the charges against the NGOs, which include claims that they were working to divide Egypt into four parts based on tourist maps in some of their offices (depicting Egypt's traditionally recognized four major regions) as without merit.

US "unnamed officials" (about as reliable as the Egyptian version of the species) have also been laying the groundwork for SCAF's out, telling US reporters that the trouble is all the doing of Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga, a Mubarak-era holdover, and that generals were just along for the ride.

It's true that she's been seeking to bring the groups under her direct control for years, and played a hand in the temporary shutdowns of IRI and NDI in 2006. But Ms. Aboul Naga serves at the pleasure of Egypt's ruling generals, and has no major independent political base of her own.

If this is the beginning of the end for the NGO trials, as seems likely, it will be the latest in a string of own goals for SCAF (for Americans, that means shooting yourself in the foot). On the one hand, they've antagonized their most important aid donor for weeks, and created the biggest diplomatic crisis between the two countries since the 1970s. On the domestic front, it will appear they've caved to US financial pressure.

Activist charges that Hosni Mubarak was a US puppet addicted to the country's aid flows dogged the former dictator in his final years. And the state-controlled media has insisted for weeks that Egypt won't bow to foreign meddling in internal legal affairs, striking a popular nationalist note. The sizable proportion of Egyptians who agreed with Egyptian officials that the presence of the US NGOs was unseemly and illegal will now be disappointed with SCAF.

Though the two US-based groups' fairly bland meat-and-potatoes democracy work – teaching political groups how to run focus groups, craft messages, and conduct polling – the fact is that Egypt has never licensed them (and, indeed, US-style democracy would threaten Egypt's current rulers). In Mubarak's last five or so years in power they operated without formal legal approval, but with casual permission from the authorities. Had the generals wanted the groups shut, they could have done so with less noise and anger in Washington.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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