Two Egyptian judges laid out their case today against 43 foreign NGO workers, including at least 16 Americans, saying the civil society organizations they worked for were trying to influence politics in Egypt and deliberately worked illegally in the country. The accused face criminal charges and as much as five years in prison, the judges said.
Their comments are likely to further inflame what has become the most serious diplomatic crisis between the US and Egypt since 1978, when Cairo agreed to the Camp David accords that established peace with Israel the next year. Three US senators said yesterday that the crisis has “escalated to such a level that it now threatens our longstanding partnership” – a partnership that the US has seen as crucial to its interests in the region, including the security of Israel.
Egypt’s military-appointed prime minister sounded a defiant note today, however, saying Egypt will not stop the crackdown. “Egypt won’t back down or take a different route because of some aid,” he said, referring to the roughly $1.3 billion in military aid that the US sends to Cairo annually.
At a press conference, the judges explained the case against 43 individuals from five civil society organizations, four of them American. The organizations were conducting training and programs to support Egypt’s elections and transition to democracy or to support activists and journalists. They are charged with operating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) without a government license, and illegally receiving foreign funding.
Some of the evidence was expected. The judges said the organizations’ employees worked on tourist visas, instead of work permits, went ahead with their activities even though they did not have a license, and received large amounts of money from abroad.
Some of the organizations, including the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republic Institute (IRI), which are funded by the US, applied for licenses years ago under strict Mubarak-era laws aimed at hampering the work of pro-democracy civil society groups. Their registration was never approved, leaving them in legal limbo. Yet they had frequent communication with the authorities, and NDI employees were even accredited by the government to observe parliamentary elections November through February.
But the evidence the judges laid out went further than the official charges. Judge Sameh Abu Zeid said the work of the organizations “is purely political and has nothing to do with civil society.” He said the evidence they had collected from raids on the groups’ offices included videos of churches and military installations, a suggestion of far more sinister charges.
He also said the evidence included maps taken from IRI’s office that had English writing on them and divided Egypt up into provinces. That seemed an attempt to link the organization to the widely propagated conspiracy theory that the US and other Western powers are seeking to carve post-Mubarak Egypt into four separate countries. Authorities have often blamed foreign powers of being behind unrest in Egypt since the uprising.
In addition to the American NGOs NDI and IRI, the investigation has also implicated Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists, and the German organization Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Of at least 16 Americans charged in the case, less than half of them are currently in Egypt, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Some of the accused have taken refuge in the US embassy, apparently including Sam LaHood, Egypt director for IRI and the son of President Obama's Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood.
US officials have said that Egypt risks losing about $1.3 billion in US aid if it does not halt the case. In a statement released Tuesday, US Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire said that US aid to Egypt is in “jeopardy” and urged Egypt to reconsider its decision to move ahead with the case.
“There are committed opponents of the United States and the US-Egypt relationship within the government in Cairo who are exacerbating tensions and inflaming public opinion in order to advance a narrow political agenda,” said the statement. “…A rupture in relations would be disastrous, and the risks of such an outcome have rarely been greater.”