Egypt to prosecute Americans in NGO probe

Egyptian authorities have charged the Egypt country directors of the International Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute in an investigation into the financing of pro-democracy organizations, state media reported Monday.

IRI’s Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, was the first of 43 names published Monday afternoon on the Arabic-language Web site by state-owned newspaper al-Ahram. Several other American and Egyptian IRI employees are also being charged.

National Democratic Institute Egypt head Julie Hughes is also on the list, along with more than a dozen colleagues of various nationalities. Also charged is Patrick Butler of the International Center for Journalists.

The list published Monday names 14 of the individuals charged in the probe as “fugitives,” suggesting several managed to leave Egypt before the government imposed a travel ban on those under investigation.

They are charged with spending money from organizations that were operating in Egypt without a license.

Egyptian authorities had announced Sunday that they intended to prosecute 19 Americans as part of their investigation and the development added pressure to an already strained relationship between Egypt’s ruling generals and the Obama administration.

U.S. officials have sternly warned Cairo in recent days that the roughly $1.5 billion in aid earmarked for Egypt this year could be withheld if the politically charged investigation isn’t resolved quickly. But the tone of Sunday’s announcement suggested the Egyptian government is doubling down on what has become a high-stakes diplomatic dispute.

Washington enjoyed a good relationship with Egypt’s generals during the reign of President Hosni Mubarak, when the military was seen as a bulwark against Islamic extremists and the Mubarak regime was Israel’s most important Arab ally. But those ties have soured over the past year as the generals have struggled to govern a country reeling from near-daily protests, economic woes and an unprecedented level of violence. The military leaders have often accused foreigners of working covertly to destabilize Egypt during the difficult transition to civilian rule.

Fayza Abul Naga, Egypt’s minister for international cooperation, who is widely seen as the mastermind of the probe, said Sunday’s announcement should leave no doubt about the “government’s seriousness about discovering some of these groups’ plans to destabilize Egypt,” the state-owned newspaper al-Ahram reported on its Web site. The minister is among the few Mubarak loyalists who remain in the Egyptian cabinet.

Egypt has banned a number of nongovernmental organizations’ workers, including LaHood, country director for the International Republican Institute, from leaving the country. Fearing they could be arrested, at least three of the Americans under investigation have sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy.

In response to pressure from Washington, Egyptian officials have said in recent days that they were unable to meddle in a judicial matter.

Citing security officials, the Associated Press reported that LaHood was among the Americans who will face criminal charges.

The State Department said Sunday it was alarmed by the news. “We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from the government of Egypt,” spokesman Mark Toner said.

Local news reports said that in addition to the 19 Americans, 14 Egyptians, five Serbs, two Germans and three Arabs will stand trial. Egyptian officials have not indicated when formal charges will be handed down, and no trial dates have been set.

“This signals an escalation,” said Charles Dunne, the Middle East director for Freedom House, one of the organizations under scrutiny. “I think the military is trying to regain some credibility in the street by showing it can successfully confront the U.S. What they’re doing is calling the U.S. government on their bluff.”

IRI and the National Democratic Institute, both of which are linked to the U.S. political parties, condemned the Egyptian government’s decision.

“The continued assault on American, German and Egyptian civil society is not a ‘legitimate judicial process,’  ” IRI said in a statement. “It is a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt’s growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs.”

NDI said in a statement that it did not know “which individuals or organizations” had been named in the case but that it was “deeply concerned.” The institute said its work in Egypt has been “nonpartisan” and “transparent.”

Pro-democracy groups have worked openly in Egypt for years, although the government has long refused to grant them operating licenses. The groups were buoyed last year when the government allowed them to monitor parliamentary elections, the first time foreign monitors were allowed to observe polls in the country.

Hopes that Mubarak’s fall a year ago would be a boon for pro-democracy activists were dashed on Dec. 29 when Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs and seized files and computers. The current investigation, led by two investigative judges who were state prosecutors, is predicated on a 2002 law that bars organizations from accepting foreign funding if they are not licensed by the state.

U.S. officials have long sought to make assistance to Egypt conditional on democratic reforms. Experts on the country said the ruling generals might be assuming that the latest threats from Washington will prove to be empty. Similar warnings linking reforms and aid, dating back at least two administrations, have not been pressed.

The Egyptian government has long seen its yearly aid package from Washington as payback for signing a treaty with Israel in 1978.

The generals don’t “see this aid as being aid,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “They see it as their birthright. They see it as a bribe, and they feel they are undertaking their side of the pact.”

But LaHood’s involvement in the case could leave Washington little recourse, Hamid said. “Threatening to arrest and try the son of a top U.S. official is a red line, and they’ve crossed it,” he said.

Wan reported from Washington. Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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