Egypt’s justice minister has returned a letter from the U.S. ambassador that called for the lifting of a travel ban on democracy assistance activists, while local news media report that Ministry of Justice officials dismissed claims of a deal between U.S. and Egyptian authorities to allow NGO officials to leave the country.
According to Reuters:
Justice Minister Adel Abdelhamid Abdallah said he had urged the U.S. embassy to redirect the letter to investigating judges. Abdallah said the request from Ambassador Anne Patterson was sent to his home and he returned it to the U.S. embassy because it should have been sent to the investigating judges.
“In it were the names of the people banned from travel and it was asking for a cancellation of this decision to be considered, as their constitutional right,” he said. “I spoke to the embassy and I returned this letter and told them that this letter should be sent to the investigating judges and not to the minister of justice.”
Several U.S. citizens working for pro-democracy non-governmental organizations are banned from leaving Egypt and several have taken refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Observers expect the regime to prosecute the officials – along with Egyptian and European activists – following a crackdown on civil society groups.
On December 29, security forces seized computers, cell phones, documents and staffs’ personal effects from the offices of Egyptian and foreign-based non-governmental groups, including the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory.
The authorities also targeted foreign democracy assistance groups, including the US-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer foundation.
The investigation was initially prompted by Egyptian authorities’ shock at the extent of US funding for NGOs that incoming ambassador Anne Patterson revealed in Congressional hearings last summer, a Washington meeting heard yesterday.
Officials feared the political impact of civil society and, allegedly, potential ‘security’ risks arising from the funding, a Cairo-based analyst told an off-the-record forum. But the ruling military and former regime elements – principally Fayza Aboul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, who oversees foreign funding – are also exploiting the issue for political purposes, having conducted a high-profile smear campaign against foreign-funded NGOs as agents or tools of foreign powers.
The official propaganda campaign has been successful in swinging public opinion against foreign-linked NGOs, the analyst said, and also enjoys tacit support from the Muslim Brotherhood and some of the old established ‘liberal’ parties, especially the Wafd, which fear the emergence of new democratic forces.
The investigation is being used to shore up the authorities’ tattered public reputation, according to Said Sadek, a political sociologist at the American University in Cairo.
It is being used for domestic purposes “to show that Egypt is still strong and say ‘no’ to the United States,” he argues, “ especially after the criticism that some Americans raised against the behavior of the SCAF, human rights organizations condemning the transitional period and the mismanagement from the military.”
Naga’s ministry conducted an investigation into foreign funding which revealed that by far the largest sources of external political finance are Qatar and Kuwait, yet Islamist groups are not being investigated, let alone prosecuted.
But the investigation is also demonstrating the military’s political shortcomings, says Michele Dunne, an Egypt analyst at the Atlantic Council.
“We are seeing an Egyptian government headed by military officials who are much less sophisticated politically, and I think they have sort of gotten themselves into a situation here, a conflict with the U.S., and maybe not sure how to get out of it.”
The dispute is threatening to undermine U.S.-Egyptian relations and jeopardize assistance to other transitions, while lawmakers on Capitol Hill are threatening to withhold the annual $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Egypt’s military. The funds will only be released if the Obama administration verifies that Egypt remains on the path to democracy.
And that won’t be easy, says Dunne, a former State Department official.
“Under current conditions it would be extremely difficult for the administration either to certify that the Egyptian government is meeting the conditions or to use the national security waiver,” she says.
“Members of Congress are very angry about what has happened, and they really see this closing down of the NGOs, and particularly the American NGOs, as being a direct threat and an insult to the United States.”
But the AUC’s Sadek believes that strategic considerations loom larger than human rights and democracy in shaping U.S. decision-making.
“Remember, the United States needs the military whom they invested in for many decades,” he said. “They also have open relationships with the political powers in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and they know that those two powers are very important in this relationship.”
An article in Monday’s Al Shurouk newspaper, was headlined, “Prosecution to Refer Foreign Funding Case to Criminal Court,” CNN reports:
It quoted an unidentified “judicial source” as saying, “The list of charges leveled against them include working without an official permit from the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, receiving foreign funds in violation of the law and spending such funds on activities that harmed the country.”
The paper says that “among those hit by the travel ban … are 13 Americans and eight Europeans, mostly Serbians.” The paper added that the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Justice dismissed claims that a deal has been struck with the United States under which the American officials of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute would be allowed to leave the country.
“The travel ban,” the paper quoted the official as saying, “is a judicial decision made by an independent investigative body. Under no circumstances should Egyptian judicial rulings be swayed.”
None of NDI’s staff members are at the U.S. Embassy, said Leslie Campbell, the group’s director of programs in the Middle East and North Africa:
The institute has been told that six of its staff members are on the “no-fly” list of foreigners who are not allowed to leave the country, but the institute “has not seen the list and has not tried to test it” and remove staff from the country. Campbell says that there is no “legal process” under way in Egypt and that the government is not communicating with the non-governmental organizations directly.
“There is no warrant, no explanation, no documentation or charges,” he said. Almost all of the information the groups are getting comes from Egyptian media reports. Recent articles in the media have indicated that the investigation is almost at an end and “that is the prelude to putting them on trial.”