Egypt is bringing criminal charges against at least 40 people, including some American citizens, over the foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations, sharply raising the stakes in a standoff with the US that has put $1.3 billion in US military aid to Egypt at risk.
The workers at pro-democracy organizations are being charged with operating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) without licenses from the government and illegally receiving foreign funding, according to state media. The charges carry a sentence of up to five years in prison. The Associated Press reported that 19 Americans would be charged, while a state-owned newspaper said six.
The decision to move forward with prosecutions comes just a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Egypt’s foreign minister that Egypt’s crackdown on NGOs could affect US aid to Egypt. The US gives Egypt about $1.5 billion in aid every year, of which about $1.3 billion is military aid. Congress recently imposed conditions on the military aid, requiring the secretary of state to certify that the Egyptian government is supporting a transition to civilian government for the aid to go forward. US officials have said that if Egypt continues the crackdown, those conditions could not be met.
A trial of American citizens in Egypt would bring the tension to near breaking point at a critical juncture. The US is trying to preserve ties with Egypt after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime US ally. US officials have trod carefully with the military council that took power, hoping to preserve access amid a tumultuous time of transition.
But tension has been building for months, since the Egyptian government launched a smear campaign against US-funded organizations and began an investigation. The campaign is seen as being led by Fayza Aboul Naga, a cabinet minister who is a holdover from the Mubarak regime.
At least six Americans had been banned from leaving the country while an investigation into their work was ongoing. One of those was Sam LaHood, head of the Egypt office of International Republican Institute (IRI) and son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The Associated Press reports that LaHood, who took refuge in the US embassy after learning of the travel ban along with other American IRI staff, is among those who will be prosecuted.
Officials from organizations that are under investigation said they had not been notified of the charges and were still trying to confirm who is being prosecuted. Julie Hughes, country director for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), another US organization, said she had received verbal confirmation that the case was going to court, but was not notified of who will be charged. Both IRI and NDI, which are funded by the US, conduct programs like training political parties and observing elections.
At issue is the registration of the organizations. Under Mubarak, Egypt forced civil society organizations to seek registration with the government before receiving foreign aid. The regime used the registration process as a lever of control, and frequently denied or delayed registration.
The military council has continued the policy. The US upped its funding for pro-democracy organizations after the revolution in a bid to support a transition to a civilian government. A large chunk of the $65 million spent in democracy promotion last year went to IRI and NDI.
Both IRI and NDI have submitted registration applications with the Egyptian government, which were never approved, but neither were they outright rejected. IRI submitted its application in 2006, said Scott Mastic, director of IRI’s Middle East and north Africa programs.
“The legal status was, intentionally I think, left in this gray area that allowed the Egyptian authorities to crack down on IRI and its staff really at a whim,” Mr. Mastic said before the prosecutions were announced. The organization has kept the Egyptian government informed of its activities, he said.
The situation escalated on Dec. 29, when Egyptian security forces raided NGO offices throughout Cairo, including the offices of IRI, NDI, and offices of German and Egyptian organizations. Security forces seized computers, documents, and cash, and sealed some of the offices.
“We are concerned for the safety of our staff, both expatriate and Egyptian, and see all of what's happening as a politically motivated attack as opposed to some sort of legitimate legal process or something that merits even the term investigation,” Mastic said last week.