Crisis in Egypt-US Ties: Trial Set for Sunday

By Patrick Goodenough | February 20, 2012 | 1:42 PM EST

Egyptian soldiers stand guard while government officials raid non-governmental organizations’ offices in Cairo on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011. Egyptian officials say 43 NGO employees, including 19 Americans, will go on trial in Cairo on Sunday, February 26, 2012. (AP Photo/ Mohammed Asad, File)

( – With a trial date now set in Egypt for a group of American and other non-governmental organization staffers accused of receiving illicit foreign funding and interfering in Egypt’s political process, a report in a state-run newspaper suggested that a court decision may provide a way out of the diplomatic dispute with the U.S.

“There is only one way for these Americans to lawfully exit the country and that is for a court of law to find them not guilty of the charges against them,” the unnamed official source told Al-Ahram. “The other way is for the Americans to attempt and get them out unlawfully and this would trigger a really huge crisis for both countries.”

The paper also cited legal sources as saying a legal exit could be worked out, with the NGOs applying to register under relevant laws, and it quoted diplomatic sources as saying decision makers are determined that the issue should be resolved through a judicial, rather than diplomatic means.

The situation has been at an impasse for weeks: top U.S. officials have warned that $1.5 billion in military and economic aid could be in jeopardy if the Americans are not allowed to leave; Despite sustained pressure, Egyptian leaders insist it’s a judicial matter that is out of their hands.

A court ruling acquitting 43 NGO employees, including 19 Americans, or handing down a mild reprimand or a fine, could be seen as a way to break the standoff in such a way that the Egyptian government does not face criticism at home for giving in to U.S. pressure.

Egyptian officials announced at the weekend that the trial of the NGO staffers has been set down for Sunday, February 26.

The Americans are attached to the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), the democracy watchdog Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalists, a training organization.

Most are not in Egypt, but the seven who are have been barred from leaving the country.

Critics say the Egyptian authorities, both during the Mubarak regime and since its fall a year ago, have deliberately ignored, delayed or otherwise confounded attempts by NGOs, both foreign and Egyptian, to register.

The IRI and NDI have been working in Egypt since 2006 and 2005 respectively and both say they applied for registration at the outset.

Freedom House began working in Egypt after the departure of Mubarak and says it submitted its final registration papers just three days before the dispute erupted with a Dec. 29 raid by armed forces on five foreign and five Egyptian NGOs.

The International Center for Journalists says it began the process late last year: “As recently as November, we informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about all our programs as part of the registration process,” the group’s president, Joyce Barnathan, said on Capitol Hill on Thursday. “Last year, our local lawyer told us that to get registered, Egyptian law required us to open an office and show activity, which we did.”

Experts have attributed the dispute to a government minister who is hostile to the U.S. as well as to the military council, which retains overall executive authority ahead of presidential elections expected in the summer. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest party in parliament following recent legislative elections, supports the crackdown.

In the latest attempt to find a resolution to the row, a congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the IRI, arrived in Cairo on Sunday.

Ahead of the trip McCain was asked during an ABC News interview whether the U.S. should threaten to cut off aid to Egypt over the episode.

He said the delegation aimed to explain to the Egyptian leadership “that this is a serious situation, has serious implications for our relationship. But for me to go to the Egyptians now and make threats, I think could be nonproductive.”

‘Clearly political in nature’

On Thursday, senior representatives of the affected American NGOs testified before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

More than one noted that hundreds of Egyptian NGOs were also being harassed, and argued that how the U.S. handles the issue was being carefully watched by repressive governments elsewhere.

“The implications for U.S. interests are significant and extend beyond the American-Egyptian relationship,” Freedom House president David Kramer told the panel. “That is because regimes around the world are following very closely what the Egyptian authorities are able to get away with in their efforts to rein in civil society and go after American-funded non-governmental organizations.”

“We recognize that authoritarian leaders in other nations are closely watching the outcome of the current standoff between civil society and Egyptian authorities with long term consequences,” said IRI president Lorne Craner.

The panelists disputed claims that the case was purely a legal one.

Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, February 16, 2012. On his right is International Republican Institute president Lorne Craner, and on his left Freedom House president David Kramer. (Photo: NDI)

“Egypt’s government has said repeatedly that the investigation is being conducted by the country’s independent judiciary and cannot be influenced by the government,” said NDI president Kenneth Wollack. “Yet the actions to date – from the armed raids and the nature of interrogations to public pronouncements by Egyptian authorities – have not resembled a normal and fair judicial process.”

“The charges are clearly political in nature and without foundation,” said Kramer.

“None of the 43 persons implicated in the investigation and now facing charges has ever been provided with the investigative report that precipitated legal actions being undertaken as per the law,” Craner told the lawmakers.

Kramer cautioned against the view that the military was not implicated.

While International Cooperation Minister Faiza Abul-Naga was leading the attacks on the NGOs, he said, “any claims by the military that the situation is out of their hands do not stand up under scrutiny. They have been in charge in Egypt since Mubarak’s resignation but have shown little respect for judicial processes or independent branches of government unless it suits their needs.”

The Freedom House president called for strong action

“It is hard to understand how the United States could provide taxpayer assistance to an Egyptian military leadership that prevents NGOs from implementing democracy and human rights projects supported by those same U.S. taxpayers,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I believe that only the suspension of U.S. military assistance will get the Egyptian government’s attention.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow