Egyptian Citizens, U.S. Leaders Debate Foreign Aid After Controversial Raids


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CAIRO, EGYPT – On the streets of Cairo, Egypt’s capital, citizen opinion varies on the Egyptian government’s December 2011 raid of mostly U.S. nongovernmental organizations.

Many Egyptians say they support the crackdown on these organizations. Saber Naieem, 37, an accountant in Cairo, says he agrees with the stand the Egyptian authorities are taking.

“It is about time Americans understand that Egypt isn’t going to be controlled like it was during Mubarak’s time,” he says. “We know that they have a plan, and they work day and night on it through their so-called nongovernmental organizations. But our government isn’t going to let them win.”

Reflecting the uneven views on the development of democracy in Egypt, citizens debate the charges facing employees of the nongovernmental organizations raided here. Egyptian leaders behind the investigations say the organizations were working to destabilize the country, a charge their leaders deny. Meanwhile, leaders in the United States debate whether to cut aid to its longtime ally.  

The unprecedented crackdown on civil society occurred on Dec. 29, 2011, resulting in the shutdown of 10 nongovernmental organizations. Egyptian officials and security forces raided 17 of their offices, seized their assets and funds, conducted a media campaign against them, instituted a foreign travel ban against some of their employees and announced plans to prosecute them, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said last month during a hearing held by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which she chairs in the House of Representatives.

The raids came as part of an investigation launched on the orders of Faiza Abul Naga, the Egyptian minister of planning and international cooperation, and rooted in concerns that the organizations had been receiving funds from abroad illegally and operating without the required licenses. There have also been allegations of espionage and that the foreign employees were working illegally in the country to destabilize it.

The travel ban has since been lifted, but Egyptian authorities are pursuing the prosecution of 43 of the organizations’ employees, including 19 U.S. citizens, 14 Egyptians, and several Arab and European nationals.

The workers on the list belong to the Washington-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and International Center for Journalists. Also, two Germans on the list are from Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German political foundation.

On the streets of Cairo, there is disagreement about the role of civil society organizations.

Some say the problem with these organizations is that they fight the authorities too much.

“They should work with the government, not against it,” says Shady Nasr, a 26-year-old taxi driver in Cairo. “The country is too fragile right now to have people fighting the government.”

Others disagree.

Ibrahim Lamey, an engineer in Cairo, worries that Egyptians’ lack of understanding of civil society has a lot to do with their support of the crackdown.

“People fought for concepts like democracy, human rights, freedom, et cetera,” he says of his fellow Egyptians during the 2011 revolution. “But they don’t fully understand it.”

He says that because Egyptians were forced to follow only one authority for so long that it will take time for them to understand how to stand up to authorities here.

Banning the 19 U.S. citizens from leaving Egypt led to one of the biggest disputes between the United States and Egypt in recent history. Threats have been issued to cut the United States' more than $1.3 billion in military aid, which Egypt has been receiving yearly since 1987, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The presidents of the nongovernmental organizations testified in a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs last month in regards to the future of this aid.

“Never had an office raided [in] over 30 years,” Lorne Craner, International Republican Institute president, said during the hearing. “Never had people hauled in for questioning like this, never had people on a no-fly and never had people charged for a trial.”

Congressmen speaking during the hearing also searched for answers.

“For the life of me, I don’t know whether this is a foolish move or a very calculated move to take on these NGOs at a time when Egypt is going through this transition and we’re practically their best friends who can help them,” said Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J.

Allegations against the organizations include receiving illegal foreign funding and operating without licenses from the Egyptian government.

Kenneth Wollack, National Democratic Institute president, said during the hearing that the institute had applied for a license in 2005 and that the Egyptian foreign minister at the time had told him that it would be granted in a matter of weeks. Egyptian law mandates that applications can be considered approved if not rejected within 60 days of submission, Wollack said.  

“NDI’s application has never been rejected, while we are still waiting for formal recognition,” Wollack said.

He and the other presidents assured the openness and cooperation of their organizations with the Egyptian government throughout the years about their activities in Egypt.

“We have always been open and transparent, informing officials of our activities and updating our paperwork,” Wollack said.

Abul Naga, who is a friend of Egypt’s former first lady and is seen through the eyes of many U.S. officials as the reason behind the dispute, has asserted otherwise in various Egyptian media.

"The United States and Israel could not create a state of chaos and work to maintain it in Egypt directly, so they used direct funding to organizations, especially American, as a means of implementing these goals," the Middle East News Agency quoted her saying.

In response, she has issued warnings to the United States to be careful.

“If the United States is not careful,, it may push Egypt closer to Iran,” Al-Ahram newspaper quoted her saying. “Every country has pressure cards in the political field – Egypt is no exception."

Ros-Lehtinen, who called Abul Naga “a holdover from the Mubarak era” during the February committee hearing, called for punitive actions. Even if the dispute gets resolved, she said the U.S. government must still reconsider its aid.

“This episode will color the way in which assistance is provided to Egypt,” she said.

She spoke of patronage and corruption.

“This is not about sovereignty, but about patronage and corruption,” she says. “Therefore, no further U.S. assistance should be provided to any ministry that is controlled by the minister of international cooperation.”

The dispute between Washington and its closest ally in the Middle East is far from over, with the trial in Cairo adjourned to next month and aid negotiations ongoing in Washington.

But Ahmed Al-Saady, a 24-year-old student in Cairo, disagrees.

“It’s over,” Al-Saady says. “It was a silly case to begin with. America had already won the case. It always does."