His comments came as the Pentagon announced that its most senior general will visit Egypt in an attempt to defuse tensions over Cairo’s crackdown on non-governmental organizations. But a negotiated resolution seems unlikely after the judges investigating the case today threatened new raids on civil society groups and promised to extend the investigation to foreign funding of Islamist groups.
“Egypt will apply the law … in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons,” said army-appointed Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri.
“What we are seeing now is worse than after the 1967 defeat, which was a military one,” he said. “What is happening is a call to defeat the whole people, not only a military defeat. If we unite, we will get through this.”
Egypt is the backbone of the region, he said, warning that “if it falls, the whole region will follow.”
“Neither the West, nor the Arab brothers are aware of this,” he said.
Contrary to reports that the authorities are reluctant to jeopardize $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance – “The travel ban will be lifted and the escalation will cease,” an Egyptian official told Reuters, “Egypt needs the loans and the IMF funds to come through” – the judges investigating the case have threatened new raids on civil society groups.
Judge Sameh Abou Zeid said the NGOs’ work “is purely political and has nothing to do with civil society,” hinting that evidence gathered in raids on the groups’ offices might lead to far more sinister charges. The accused face criminal charges that carry sentences of up to five years in prison, the judges said.
“There is a lot of evidence, some of it dangerous. We have about 160 pages of evidence,” he said:
He said one foreign NGO had sought help from a local operation to launch an online page to list the number and locations of churches, as well as identify the location of army units in Ismailia and Suez, cities east of Cairo. He said this indicated political activities outside the mandate of NGOs.
“Now we are arriving at the next step of investigations, and issuing a [new] warrant to search the headquarters of several NGOs operating illegitimately in Egypt,” he said, “including religious organizations that receive illegal funding from Arab countries.”
“We decided to search these NGOs’ offices as part of the investigation and reveal the whole truth, so that no innocent party is convicted or vice versa,” he said. “Indeed, we managed to seize some documents that prove some of these NGOs receive funds through illegal avenues from overseas without informing authorities.”
“One piece of evidence we found was a map showing Egypt divided into four parts: Upper Egypt, the Delta, Greater Cairo and the Canal provinces,” Abou Zeid said.
While he didn’t explain the significance of such maps in proving the case, the accusation reflects claims made by some TV personnel and officials that there is a foreign plot to divide Egypt.
Abou Zeid said the five NGOs are not involved in civil service, but their work extends to politics, which took a different direction after the Jan. 25 uprising.
“Many eyewitnesses who used to work for these NGOs testified that they quit once they doubted the nature of the work of these foreign organizations,” Abou Zeid claimed.
“They told us surveys were conducted across the country by these NGOs asking Egyptians about their religious beliefs and their dress codes,” he added. Egyptians have to state their religious affiliation on ID cards.
“The results of these surveys are never published in Egypt, but are secretly reported to their mother organizations in the US,” the judge said.
Ashraf el-Ashmawi, another of the investigating judges, dismissed the suggestion that the NGOs were simply supporting Egyptian democracy and human rights.
“Their activities have nothing to do with human rights,” he said, adding that additional groups are under investigation.
The authorities last week imposed a travel ban on several foreign nationals prior to expected prosecutions of Egyptian and foreign democracy activists following security forces’ December 29 raids on seventeen NGOs, including three U.S.-based and government funded groups: Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.
Prominent U.S. lawmakers warned that the regime is placing U.S. assistance to Egypt in “jeopardy” if it proceeds 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 a statement by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire. “A rupture in relations would be disastrous, and the risks of such an outcome have rarely been greater.”
It is “unacceptable that U.S. taxpayer dollars, taxpayer-funded equipment, and most importantly, U.S. citizens are the target of a politically motivated investigation,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
But Egypt’s premier struck a defiant tone, insisting that the authorities “can’t back down or won’t change course because of some aid.”
“Egypt used its legal right to face some violations by civil groups,” he said. “The lofty judiciary moved and discussed and investigated the case. … The West then turned against us because Egypt exercised its rights.”
“The generals are predisposed to believe these warnings about an international conspiracy to destabilize Egypt,” he said. “They think they are facing the same fate as Mubarak.”
Veteran human rights activist Hafez Abou Saada says el-Ganzouri’s comments are “an attempt to rally a domestic front behind the government and create an enemy.”
Local civil groups say the campaign on foreign-funded nonprofit groups is in preparation for a harsh crackdown on local rights groups who have been documenting and lobbying against the military rulers since they took office last year.
Cairo’s dispute with Washington over the NGOs “is incomprehensible and unjustified and goes to show that the case against the civil groups is not a legal but is a political one,” says Saada.
The government’s hard line stance appears to reflect a conviction that Washington will be forced to sacrifice the NGOs rather than risk jeopardizing a strategically vital relationship with Egypt’s military.
“We no longer have to worry about Washington because we have the power,” a military source close to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), told The Media Line.
The architect of the crackdown is the misnamed minister for international cooperation, Faiza Abou el-Naga, a Mubarak holdover, whose campaign against the NGOs confirms the resilience of the former regime’s old guard and its determination to stifle emerging democratic forces.
“Mubarak is still ruling in some ways and is still blocking the emergence of a new regime in Egypt,” said Abdullah al-Ashaal, a former deputy foreign minister. “Faiza Abou el-Naga is one of the tools in that.”
U.S. officials fear that the narrative demonizing the United States and blaming foreigners for unrest is getting traction on the Egyptian street. Abou el-Naga’s crackdown on pro-democracy groups has promoted that view.
“When the regime changed, we all thought, Faiza will be gone,” said a senior U.S. official who worked in Egypt, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be interviewed. “Man, were we wrong. She’s more powerful than ever.”….
“Her political strength comes from the fact that she is the one who receives foreign aid and rechannels foreign aid,” said a former colleague who is supportive of her and the NGO probe. He agreed to be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity in order to speak bluntly. “She knows how to satisfy those in power.”…..
“She’s characterizing their work as violating Egyptian sovereignty and using that as a rallying cry,” said the senior U.S. official. “That’s turned into a weapon that appeals to the new leadership.”
Aboul Naga is motivated by “personal vengeance” against the rights groups responsible for exposing the fraudulent elections in 2010 in which she won a parliamentary seat, according to a statement by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
“[The crackdown casts] doubt over the real role played by these organizations and defames them, using one of the most prominent figures of the Mubarak regime, Fayza Aboul Naga, who found in this campaign an opportunity for vengeance [targeting] the human rights institutions that contributed to toppling the regime to which she belongs, ,” the statement said.
But the group also criticizes the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for lack of transparency over funding which “paved the way for and fueled the campaign led by Aboul Naga against civil society.”
Sherif Mansour, a senior program officer for Freedom House and one of the pro-democracy activists charged in the case, says imprisonment would be a “small price to pay” to support Egyptian civil society.
He expresses the hope that Washington does not capitulate to the Egyptian authorities.
“It’s time to take a moral stand,” he says. “The military council thinks it can literally get away with impunity and cynically keep taking Americans’ money. I say we call the generals’ bluff.”
As he wrote in an op-ed in Foreign Policy:
After the events of the past few months, with U.S. organizations and citizens clearly targeted despite the United States’ billions of dollars in military and economic aid to the Egyptian state, the ball is in America’s court. It is time to make it clear to the Egyptian military that Congress and the White House will stop subsidizing repression in Egypt with U.S. taxpayer money, including the $1.3 billion in annual military funding. Leverage is useless if one chooses not to use it.