Egypt strains US ties over NGO indictments

Justice ministry calls 19 US and 14 Egyptian civil society workers to trial after investigation into foreign funding.

Egypt-US relations
At least seven people have been killed in clashes in Cairo and Suez since last week’s football violence [EPA]

Egypt has indicted 19 American democracy advocates on charges of illegally receiving foreign funding and operating without registration, raising the stakes in an investigation that has endangered the billions of dollars of aid Egypt receives from the US every year.

The justice ministry on Monday released a list of 43 indicted staff members from five non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Egypt. The list includes 14 Egyptians as well as workers from Lebanon, Germany, Jordan, Palestine and Serbia.

The indictments come amid another round of street violence sparked by a deadly football stampede a week ago that protesters blamed on lax security forces who helped stoke the riot.

Five days of fighting between protesters and riot police calmed on Monday, but eight people have died in Cairo and five in Suez.

In response to the unrest, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered the High Elections Commission to speed up the presidential election process, opening the nomination process on March 10 instead of in April.

“I think it’ll be seen once again as a little bit too little too late,” Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros reported from Cairo.

“There’s so little trust between the protesters and the military rulers that until an actual date is set and they say they’re going back to their barracks, it won’t make much of a difference.”

US aid at risk

The indicted Americans include the directors of two prominent US organisations, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Sam LaHood, the director of the IRI, is also the son of Barack Obama’s transportation secretary.

The Obama administration and congress have reacted angrily since the offices of NDI, IRI and 17 other international and local groups were raided and many of their belongings confiscated by armed investigators in December.

The raids were part of an investigation into pro-democracy groups launched in early 2011 by Fayza Aboulnaga, Egypt’s planning and international co-operation minister, a holdover from the Hosni Mubarak regime.

Since the raids, some of the US citizens under investigation have been banned from leaving Egypt.

On Monday, the White House emphasised again that Egypt’s actions put its aid at risk.

“These actions could have consequences for our relationship and our assistance programmes,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said the indicted Americans have been working to build a more democratic society in Egypt and “have done absolutely nothing wrong”.

Rice told the CBS television show, This Morning, that US officials have been in close touch with the Egyptian government, including “in the last days and hours”.

Two narratives

Egyptian government officials have alleged the US-funded organisations were favouring certain new political parties and contributing to unrest in the country.

The organisations, however, argue that they are impartial and only help train politicians in how to conduct campaigns and respond to constituents.

“We’re essentially being presented two narratives. The prosecutors are saying these NGOs have set up illegal branches … they have provided political backing to some of the parties here,” Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh reported from Cairo.

“On the other hand, you have civil society groups saying the law governing NGOs here is very archaic … it’s an attempt by the government to stifle freedom.”

A military delegation from Egypt is currently in Washington DC and has meetings scheduled with angry members of congress.

As Egypt indicts democracy advocates, protesters demanding swift presidential election and an early handover of power by the ruling military say they will continue their demonstrations after four days of clashes with security forces.

Thousands of people protested outside the interior ministry in Cairo on Monday, accusing the military of failing to prevent the deaths of 72 people during last week’s football stampede in Port Said.

There was little reported violence, though riot police had been using tear gas and shotgun pellets to attack protesters throughout the weekend.

“The demand is that the army step down politically and announce the start of nominations for the presidential election immediately,” Waleed Saleh, an activist, said on Sunday.

Prior to speeding up the elections process, the military-backed government announced it would move Mubarak to a Cairo prison. Protesters have long complained the army was sparing its former commander the humiliation of jail by keeping him in a military hospital during his trial.

Mubarak has been charged over the deaths of protesters during the 18-day uprising that deposed him.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies