x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egypt 'will not back down' over NGOs case

Ganzouri unmoved by US aid threat as PM's defiant statement is sign relationship between nations is entering turbulent waters.

CAIRO // The Egyptian government yesterday said it would not be deterred by threats from US legislators to block more than US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) worth of military and economic aid from completing its prosecution of NGOs that operated without a licence.

A statement from the prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, that Egypt would "apply the law ... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons" is the strongest sign yet that the country's relationship with the US is entering uncharted and turbulent waters.

The Cairo criminal court is presiding over cases against 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, who were part of pro-democracy and civic society organisations that are accused of violating Egyptian law by operating without a licence and disbursing funds without permission from the government. The defendants are primarily from two US organisations, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), who receive the majority of their money from the US Congress.

Elizabeth Colton, a Middle East analyst who worked as the spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Cairo until her retirement in September, said the Egyptian government appeared to be willing to "push this to the brink". By forcing the end of its aid deal with the US, Egypt may see itself gaining clout in the region and cachet among Egyptians, many of whom have resented what is portrayed here as a domineering influence over the country, she said.

"It appears that they think that if they do it, it gives them a little more freedom to make foreign policy decisions about Israel and other topics of interest to the US," Ms Colton said from Washington.

The prosecution of the NGO workers has stirred up the deepest rift between Egypt and the US in decades. John McCain, a Republican senator and chairman of the board of IRI, is scheduled to make a trip to Cairo next week to press the government to halt the investigations. He and other top officials, including the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have said that the "crackdown" on the NGOs could lead to the review of all aid to Egypt.

Egyptian officials yesterday made clear that they would not allow the US to interfere with court proceedings. Sameh Abu Zeid, a judge overseeing the case, told reporters that a letter from US Ambassador Anne Patterson asking for travel bans against some defendants to be lifted was "unacceptable" and that she had "no legal standing in the case to intervene in such a manner".

US aid has long been a controversial topic for the Egyptian government, especially funds used to support pro-democracy groups. The country is the second-largest recipient of US government assistance after Israel, receiving $1.3bn of military aid and about $250m of economic aid every year.

Fayza Abul Naga, the minister of international cooperation and planning who has led the campaign against the NGOs in the case, has been complaining about conditions attached to US aid and the unlicensed work of NGOs since before last year's uprising against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Her campaign led to investigations last year when USAID issued an advertisement in Egypt that said it would work directly with NGOs and civic-society groups rather than going through the Ministry of International Cooperation. A government statement yesterday quoted her saying that $175m "was spent on unauthorised NGOs in Egypt by the US government from March to June 2011".

Egyptian officials have framed the investigation as "the US government trying to influence the political outcome" in Egypt after Mr Mubarak was forced to resign last year, said Jennifer Bremer, an associate professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo and a former USAID employee in the late 1970s. "The broader agenda [of the interim government and military rulers] is to threaten independent civil society. It plays into their political argument that the unrest in Egypt is guided by some foreign parties," she said.

Ms Colton said the NGO investigations were part of a counter-revolutionary effort among members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) and former confidantes of Mr Mubarak. Ms Abul Naga "was very close to Mubarak, but at the same time has continued to be very close to Scaf, who were supportive of Mubarak, but never of the idea of Gamal taking over".

What began as occasional criticisms of US aid policies has transformed into a colder stance from the Egyptian leadership towards the US, she said, pointing to the fact that a delegation of generals to the US abruptly cancelled meetings with US legislators about the NGO case earlier this week.

By the end of last year, "it was apparent that the old establishment was rising up again slowly and it was obviously connected to the military", Ms Colton said. "The irony is that the revolution, which was supposed to bring about democracy, gave Fayza Abul Naga and the anti-democracy forces even more clout."

bhope@thenational.ae

* With Reuters and Associated Press

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