U.S. Military Aid to Egypt at Risk for First Time in Decades

February 6, 2012 - 6:02 AM
Egypt-American detainees

National Democratic Institute staffers wait as Egyptian officials raid their offices in Cairo on Dec. 29, 2011. Investigating judges on Sunday referred 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, to trial for allegedly being involved in banned activities and illegally receiving foreign funds, security officials said. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad, File)

(CNSNews.com) – With more than a billion dollars in U.S. aid potentially in jeopardy, Egypt’s foreign minister claimed Sunday that the country’s military government has no control over the judiciary’s decision to crack down on foreign-funded, non-governmental organizations.

Mohammed Amr spoke in Munich amid a deepening dispute with Washington, following reports saying that Egyptian judicial authorities intend to prosecute 43 individuals linked to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including 19 American citizens.

Among the organizations being investigated and subjected to armed raids, confiscation of equipment and records and other harassment since late last year are the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), democracy-promoting groups loosely associated with America’s two major political parties.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with Amr on the sidelines of a security conference in the southern German city on Saturday, told reporters the U.S.-Egypt relationship and funding may be impacted by the episode.

“We have worked very hard the last year to put into place financial assistance and other support for the economic and political reforms that are occurring in Egypt,” Clinton said. “And we will have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances.”

U.S. legislation signed into law last December ties the provision of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt in fiscal year 2012 to certification that the government in Cairo “is supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.”

The wording was inserted by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations. Leahy said on the Senate floor Friday that “if the assault against international and Egyptian non-governmental organizations continues, several of the requirements for certification could not be met.”

Clinton spoke in Germany before the reports about imminent prosecutions were leaked. After they appeared, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland – traveling with Clinton as she headed home on Sunday night – said, “We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from Egypt.”

Military aid to Egypt – amounting to $1.3 billion a year since 1987 – has been secure for more than three decades, with Republican and Democratic administrations alike supportive of bolstering the Arab world’s largest country following its decision to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

Amr’s insistence that Egypt’s judiciary is independent flies in the face of an evaluation by the State Department in last year’s global human rights report that, notwithstanding constitutional provisions “in practice the judiciary was subject to executive influence and corruption.”

In a brief statement Sunday, the IRI pointed to that assessment and said the investigation into NGOs was not a “legitimate judicial process” – as claimed by Egyptian officials – but “a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt’s growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs.”

The NDI also issued a short statement saying that while it did not know specifically which individuals or organizations have been named, it had learned “through judicial sources, media reports and its lawyer” that criminal charges are being brought against 19 Americans, 14 Egyptians, five Serbs, three Arabs and two Germans.

Both IRI and NDI have denied accusations of interfering in the Egyptian political process or encouraging Egyptians to protest.

“IRI does not provide monetary or material support to Egyptian political parties or civic groups, and the Institute’s work is carried out in an open and transparent manner,” the group says. “IRI’s work with Egyptian civil society supports nonpartisan voter education and civic engagement with the goal of enhancing democratic participation and does not interfere with or influence the outcome of elections.”

“At no time has NDI funded any political party or protest movement,” says the NDI. “The Institute does not seek particular electoral outcomes; and does not align itself with any political party, ideology or candidate.”

‘The days of blank checks are over’

One of the complaints raised against the NGOs is that they are not properly registered to operate in Egypt. However, critics say the authorities have ignored attempts by NGOs to register, a deliberate move that has left them vulnerable and subject to legal action at any time.

The IRI says it applied for registration in June 2006 and was told at the time its application was complete. Since then, “IRI has repeatedly sought to work with Egyptian authorities to acquire registration and in the process has kept authorities fully informed of its activities.”

The NDI says it applied for registration in 2005 and has fulfilled all registration requirements over the past six years.

“Those groups are unregistered and from the view of the judiciary they were breaking the laws of Egypt,” Amr said in Munich. “We cannot exercise influence on the judges.”

The authorities have prevented several Americans attached to the targeted NGOs from leaving the country, and some are sheltering at the U.S. Embassy. Among those barred from traveling is the IRI’s Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

In his floor speech, Leahy said it was ironic that the former Mubarak regime did not expel the democracy-promoting NGOs, but “Egypt’s current authorities, whose responsibility it is to defend and support the democratic tradition, are attempting to do just that.”

“The military argues that since these groups were not registered they were in violation of Egyptian law, but this is a transparently specious excuse for shutting them down,” he said. “Their repeated applications for registration were neither granted nor denied. The government simply chose to ignore them.”

Leahy said he inserted the conditions on military aid into the appropriations legislation for two reasons.

“First, we want to send a clear message to the Egyptian people that we support their demand for democracy and fundamental freedoms,” he said. “Second, we want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over.

“We value the relationship and will provide substantial amounts of aid, but not unconditionally. They must do their part to support the transition to civilian government.”

Other organizations affected by the crackdown include the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House; Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, associated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party; and the Cairo-based Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession.