Government memo reveals US groups were ensared by Egypt’s desire to avoid double standards yet rein in meddlesome agencies.
Egypt's NGO crackdown rooted in 'rule of law'
CAIRO // The Egyptian government fears that if it fails to prosecute unregistered NGOs, it will create a double standard that would pave the way for foreign powers to influence its transition to democracy, according to government "talking points" obtained by The National.
Addressing the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), two American NGOs that are the most prominent ones under investigation for operating and disbursing money without a license, the document says: "The question here is how can you empower democracy as a pillar to good governance, while you are applying principles of breaching the law".
"If NDI and IRI are allowed such an exception, should other entities with Wahhabi or Shiite efforts be allowed or should we adopt double standardisation while [they are] breaching the law," it says.
The document, from Egypt's Ministry of International Cooperation, gives insight into the arguments being used by diplomats and officials in discussions to ease tensions with foreign governments and prevent a stand-off with the US over its economic and military aid.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said she told the Egyptian foreign minister on Saturday that "there are problems that arise from this situation that can affect all the rest of our relationships with Egypt", hinting at the US$1.3 billion of military assistance and $250 million of economic aid due to be given this year.
An Egyptian court defied those warnings, announcing on Sunday it would prosecute the 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, for violating laws about operating in Egypt and funding local groups without a permit. If found guilty, the workers could face a fine or between six months and five years in prison.
US officials have decried the crackdown as an attempt to stifle critics of the military rulers. But the "talking points" document emphasises the Egyptian perspective that the cases are against a minority of NGOs working in Egypt, compared to the 35,000 registered national and 69 foreign organisations licensed to work in the country, of which 23 are American.
"The Government of Egypt and the Egyptian people believe that one of the essential principles of the Egyptian revolution is applying the rule of law with no double standardisation and that it should apply to all," the document says. "No organisations, entities and individuals, national or foreign should be able to operate outside the law."
At the heart of the dispute is Fayza Abul Naga, the minister of international cooperation and a rare holdover from the regime of President Hosni Mubarak who has survived three cabinet shake-ups since the uprising that forced Mubarak to resign. A career diplomat who also served in the United Nations under former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, she is the gate keeper for all international aid and loans to Egypt.
Ms Abul Naga told the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper that the court cases confirmed the "government's seriousness about discovering some of these groups' plans to destabilise Egypt".
Her suspicions about unregistered US NGOs and the use of conditional aid by the US government predate the Egyptian uprising. In a US diplomatic cable from 2006, published by WikiLeaks, she urged that "US assistance … remain government-to-government, support only legally-registered NGOs, and not be linked to political reform".
The crackdown came after the recently appointed US ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, made remarks to the US Congress that "close to $40 million" of funding had been invested in NDI, IRI and International Foundation for Electoral Systems".
"This is what fuelled the situation," said an Egyptian government official who asked for anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly. "This money is coming from our economic assistance. We cannot allow a government to take the funds and work unilaterally."
At the end of December, the investigation gathered momentum when police stormed into offices of the NGOs, seizing computers and files. A travel ban was issued in January for employees of the NGOs and several of them sought refuge in the US Embassy because they feared arrest.
Michele Dunne, the director of the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said the politics of aid "is a long-time issue" for Ms Abul Naga, who has been a spokeswoman for the government about the investigations.
"I think that during the Mubarak era, she was doing some of the same things in a more low-key way and it was never allowed to escalate," she said. "The question is whether she has overplayed her hand. Does the Scaf [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] now see that this has caused a major rift with the United States that they don't need?"