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Architect of Egypt’s crackdown on U.S. NGOs declines to serve in new cabinet

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CAIRO — The prime mover behind Egypt’s crackdown on U.S.-funded pro-democracy organizations — and one of the highest-ranking survivors of the Hosni Mubarak era — said Thursday that she would not serve in the country’s new cabinet, expected to be announced within days.

Faiza Abou el-Naga, who had coordinated foreign aid to Egypt for 11 years but recently became a major irritant to the United States, told reporters Thursday she had decided months ago to step down from government after the June election that brought President Mohamed Morsi to power, the official Middle East News Agency reported.

“There is no doubt everybody in Washington is breathing a sigh of relief,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “This was not a workable relationship, and if she had stayed in that position it would have been very difficult to dispense aid effectively.”

As minister for international cooperation, Abou el-Naga had led a campaign against civil society groups over the past year that culminated with charges being brought against 43 employees of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, including the country directors of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.

The crackdown sparked a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Cairo and jeopardized $1.3 billion worth of U.S. military aid to Egypt.

The confrontation abated only after the organizations paid Egypt millions of dollars in bail for their detained employees. Travel bans against the workers were lifted, and most of them were flown out of the country on a chartered plane. However, two Americans and a German have stayed in the country to face trial alongside their Egyptian colleagues.

Abou el-Naga had a reputation as tough political operator, weathering the groundswell of anger here toward remnants of former president Mubarak’s regime and surviving several cabinet purges. She also cultivated a strong relationship with Egypt’s generals over the years.

Her strident campaign against foreign-funded pro-democracy activists had been widely seen as proof that many members of the old guard remained entrenched in power and determined to slow the pace of change.

An official with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which propelled Morsi to the presidency, said the party would be choosing a new minister to replace Abou el-Naga, according to the Web site of the state-run al-Ahram newspaper.

On Tuesday, Morsi appointed a little-known technocrat, Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Hesham Kandil, as his new prime minister, and officials say the rest of the new cabinet will be announced by next week at the latest.

But Egypt’s generals, who have run the country since Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, will also retain significant influence over the appointment process, especially with regard to key portfolios bearing on national security.

Kandil has promised a government of technocrats, but he told a private television channel Wednesday that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would choose the country’s defense minister, a post held since the Mubarak era by the council’s chairman, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

Hamid, of Brookings, said the new interior minister would also need the “seal of approval” of the military and intelligence services. “It is not so much that SCAF will impose their choice, but they will have veto power,” he said.

Morsi has promised a government of national unity, although some political parties have indicated their unwillingness to take part. A senior Freedom and Justice Party leader said this week that the party would head no more than 10 of the 32 ministries in the cabinet.

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