The head of Egypt’s ruling military today called for an accelerated transition to civilian rule. The announcement came as the regime published the names of 44 pro-democracy activists to be prosecuted for the foreign funding of Egyptian civil society groups (full list below).
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, called for the rapid completion of polling procedures required for a presidential election, following a meeting with the head of the constitutional court, the state news agency reported.
The NGO workers will face trial in the Cairo criminal court on charges of “accepting funds and benefits from an international organization” to pursue an activity “prohibited by law,” Judge Ashraf al-Ashmawy said today.
The U.S. nationals involved in the case should be released immediately as they “have done absolutely nothing wrong,” said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “They do what American and international NGO workers do in various parts of the world, which is to support democratic development and civil society.”
“The work that they’ve done in Egypt is to build and support civil society as they seek to build a more democratic Egypt,” she said. U.S. officials have been in close touch with Egyptian counterparts “in the last days and hours” who were made aware that the affair “has serious consequences for our bilateral relationship.”
The affair is undermining international efforts to support Egypt’s transition.
“Our job is to help Egypt become successful,” says a U.S. official. “Our interest is to try to work with the Egyptians to create an inclusive, safe, secure, and democratic country, and instead of talking about that we’re stuck in this rather unfortunate situation in which civil society, a crucial component of democracy, is being constrained.”
The NGO activists are also charged with undertaking “political training programs”, supporting election campaigns and illegal political financing, the judge said today.
“It’s inexplicable,” said Julie Hughes, country director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). “We don’t even know what the charges are.”
“I’m trying to stay optimistic but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t stressful on me, the organization, our families. But I’m proud of the individuals working here. We’ll hang in there.”
The list of accused NGO activists includes nineteen Americans, fourteen Egyptians, three Serbs, two Germans, two Lebanese, a Norwegian, a Palestinian and a Jordanian. One of the 19 is the International Republican Institute’s Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, along with NDI’s Hughes and Patrick Butler of the International Center for Journalists.
The 14 Egyptian defendants, al-Ahram reports, are accused of cooperating with U.S. organisations and receiving $22 million from IRI; $18 million from NDI; $23 million from the ICJ; $5 million from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung; and $600,000 from various secular groups “with the intention of destabilising Egypt’s national security and sending reports about the country to foreign parties.”
Via The Arabist via @adamakary who had the scoop and live-tweeted it, here are the names and nationalities of the 44 persons indicted by the Egyptian public prosecutor in the illegal foreign funding NGOs affair (actual spelling may differ):
Konrad Adenauer (2): Andreas Jacobs (DE) and Christina Baade (DE)
International Center For Journalists (5): Patrick Butler (US), Natasha Tynes (US), Mida(?) Michelle (US), Yehya Zakaria (EG) Islam Shafiq (EG)
Freedom House (7): Charles Dunne (US), Sherif Ahmed Sobhi Mansour (US), Samir Salim (Jordan), Mohamed Abdel Aziz (EG), Nancy Gamal Okeyl (EG), Basem Ali (EG), Magdy Moharam (EG)
International Republican Institute (14): Sam Lahood (US), Sherien Sahany (US), Christine Angel (US) Sort Chik (Serb), Hans Homis (Serb), John George (US), Reeda Khedr (Palestinian), Osama Azizi (US), Sian Mark (US), Elizabeth Dugan (US), Ahmed Shawqi (EG), Ahmed Abdel Aziz (EG), Ahmed Adam (EG), Essam Borei (EG)
National Democratic Institute (16): Julie Hughes (US), Almadin Krotovich (Serb), Bomeedir Milic (Serb), Layla Gafar (US), Robert Becker (US), Kabir Moderibee (US), Mariana Koravitch (Serb), Sitia Sia Leenhag (US), Dana Dikono (US), Ali Suleiman (Leb), Maron Safir (Leb), Michael James (US), Mohamed Ashraf (EG), Radwa Sayid (EG), Hafsa Halawa (EG), Amgad Morsi (EG)
Al-Ahram has also published a full list with ages in Arabic, but not affiliations.
While LaHood and several other Americans remain in Egypt, the others have left, according to the Egyptian prosecutor’s office. The list describes fourteen of those charged as “fugitives,” suggesting that they left the country prior to a government-imposed travel ban on officials under investigation.
The prosecutions demonstrate the “government’s seriousness about discovering some of these groups’ plans to destabilize Egypt,” said Fayza Abul Naga, Egypt’s minister for international cooperation, widely viewed as the architect of the crackdown.
“This is the continuation of the Mubarak-era attacks on civil society groups and it’s worse because it’s being conducted by Mubarak-era minister [of insurance and international co-operation] Fayza Abul Naga,” said Gamal Eid, the head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
The military’s “misguided crackdown” against pro-democracy NGOs is a factor in precipitating a shift towards a transfer of power to civilian authority, says one analyst. The investigation has further has damaged the SCAF’s credibility in handling the transition, writes Roula Khalaf:
[W]hile the military has been unable – if not unwilling – to reform the security apparatus, an elected government will have more legitimacy and motivation to implement the much-needed restructuring of the service. If the generals remove themselves from the daily running of the country, the hardened revolutionaries also might be convinced to channel their grievances through the elected parliament, reducing the likelihood of repeated confrontations with police.
Egypt’s generals have made no secret that they are seeking guarantees before they will return to the barracks…..But these conditions will have to be negotiated with elected institutions: while it is likely that some concessions will be made, the prospect of a veto-wielding military establishment watching over the government’s every move will set the stage for even more ferocious battles, in parliament and on the streets.
“I think the Egyptian military’s handling of this issue has been a disaster,” said Charles Dunne, director for Middle East and North Africa programs for Freedom House. “This represents another escalation by the Egyptian government in its war on civil society — and it’s not just the U.S. organizations, it’s the Egyptian organizations,” he told AFP.
“I find it astounding that they would do this while you still have a delegation of Egyptian general officers here in the United States to talk to the Congress and the administration about continued U.S. military funding.”
The prosecutions have caused a furor in Washington, where forty members of Congress signed letters to Field Marshal Tantawi threatening to veto the provision of up to $1.3 billion in U.S. assistance.
“The absence of a quick and satisfactory resolution to this issue will make it increasingly difficult for congressional supporters of a strong U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship to defend current levels of assistance to Egypt–especially in this climate of budget cuts in Washington,” the letter read. “We hope the Egyptian government will immediately allow these offices to reopen, return all confiscated property, end the investigations into these organizations and other civil society groups, and allow NGOs to carry out their activities in an unfettered manner.”
“I don’t think the military leaders fully appreciate the seriousness of what’s happening,” said a staffer in Congress. “They think eventually the U.S. will back down; that we need them more than they need us.”
The generals don’t “see this aid as being aid,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “They see it as their birthright. They see it as a bribe, and they feel they are undertaking their side of the pact.”
But LaHood’s involvement could leave Washington little recourse, Hamid said. “Threatening to arrest and try the son of a top U.S. official is a red line, and they’ve crossed it,” he said.
“The days of blank checks are over,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Democrat chairman of the powerful appropriations panel that oversees the aid.
“The prosecution could hardly have been better designed to provoke an American backlash,” notes one observer:
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former general close to the military council insisted that Washington was illegally financing youth activists in an attempt to destabilize Egypt and thus keep it dependent.
A lawyer representing the Republican Institute and other groups under investigation said he had not received official notification. “I don’t know what’s going on,” said the lawyer, Negad el-Boraei. “Is it a psychological battle of some kind directed against the Americans?”
The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the reports of planned prosecutions. “We have seen media reports that judicial officials intend to forward a number of cases involving U.S.-funded NGOs to the Cairo criminal court,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. “We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from Egypt,” she said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned the Egyptian foreign minister, Mohammed Amr, at a security summit in Munich on Saturday that the prosecutions jeopardized the aid package.
“We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt,” she told reporters.
But Amr claimed that the government cannot interfere with an investigation conducted by the judiciary.
“This a totally judicial issue right now,” he said. “We are doing our best to contain this but, well, if you are talking about democracy there is a separation between authorities – and we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation.”
Leahy is dismissive of officials’ claims to be upholding the rule of law, observing that “the complaint against these organizations was issued by a minister with no direct authority over legal matters.”
Prosecutors claim that the NGOs violated a 2003 law that requires groups using foreign funds to be registered with the ministry of insurance and social solidarity. But the authorities abuse the law in order to undermine and interfere with pro-democracy groups, activists claim.
“You submit your papers, then they keep asking for more and you don’t get anywhere, and in the end you are not registered,” said Sherif Azer, deputy head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
Both IRI and NDI submitted registration applications which were neither approved, nor rejected, 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,” Mastic said. “We see 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.”