Egypt’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations has startled U.S. lawmakers, who have threatened to cut off all aid to the country, including the roughly $1.3 billion a year in military aid and about $250 million annually in bilateral aid that is funneled through Abou el-Naga’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. Why, many in Washington and Cairo wonder, would the ruling generals risk losing their biggest benefactor at a time when Egypt’s reserves are running dangerously low, security forces are struggling to contain unrest and the tourism industry is anemic?
The answer, to a large extent, critics and supporters say, is Abou el-Naga.
The minister joined the Egyptian foreign service in the early 1970s — one of the few women of her generation to do so. Former colleagues say she developed a reputation as a tireless, efficient worker with extraordinary political savvy. She served in Egypt’s delegation to the United Nations in the 1990s and was later appointed as the country’s envoy to the U.N. mission in Geneva.
When Mubarak picked her for the influential cabinet job in 2001, the state-owned newspaper al-Ahram called her a trailblazer who had “reached the highest echelons of her profession.” She developed a close relationship with the president and his wife, Suzanne, former colleagues said, and quickly became one of the most powerful figures in the government, albeit one largely unseen in public.
“Her political strength comes from the fact that she is the one who receives foreign aid and rechannels foreign aid,” said a former colleague who is supportive of her and the NGO probe. He agreed to be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity in order to speak bluntly. “She knows how to satisfy those in power.”
After years of giving the Egyptian government substantial control over the way its share of U.S. aid was spent, Congress in 2004 demanded that some money earmarked for democracy-building activities be dispersed without moving through Abou el-Naga’s ministry. Part of that money went to groups such as NDI and IRI, which trained and advised opposition figures.
Abou el-Naga and the country’s intelligence agencies worried that the groups would empower government critics and pushed back against the change, said Egyptian activists and the U.S. official, who worked with her. Abou el-Naga was charming, articulate and strikingly elegant, but when the issue of NGO funding came up in meetings, she was uncompromising, the official said.
In February 2008, Abou el-Naga demanded that the United States stop funding four American and six Egyptian NGOs that had received money for democracy and governance work, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. It included one that had published a children’s book called “Ali the Human Rights Activist.” Thousands of copies were seized by security forces, the cable said.
When the Obama administration ramped up efforts to support civil society groups and political parties after last year’s revolution, publicizing grants and holding workshops to help applicants apply for money, Abou el-Naga was furious.
“This is a situation that we cannot allow to go on,” she told The Washington Post in an interview in June, noting that NDI and IRI were operating illegally because the Egyptian government had not granted them licenses. “I don’t think in the United States or any countries you would accept that, you know, a foreign country would come and pour money on NGOs who are working illegally in a given country,” she said.
Abou el-Naga did not respond to repeated requests for an interview in recent days.
Swaying the generals
Hossam Bahgat, a prominent human rights activist who is critical of Abou el-Naga and the restrictions she has enforced on NGOs, said the minister appears to have convinced the generals that the organizations have fueled protests and violence in recent months. “The generals are predisposed to believe these warnings about an international conspiracy to destabilize Egypt,” Bahgat said. “They think they are facing the same fate as Mubarak.”
U.S. officials fear that the narrative demonizing the United States and blaming foreigners for unrest is getting traction on the Egyptian street. Abou el-Naga’s crackdown on pro-democracy groups has promoted that view.
“She’s characterizing their work as violating Egyptian sovereignty and using that as a rallying cry,” said the senior U.S. official. “That’s turned into a weapon that appeals to the new leadership.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.