Courting bad relations
The trial of American and European NGO workers begins this week, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky
The criminal trial of 43 employees working for pro-democracy NGOs accused of receiving illegal funding begins on 26 February.
Nineteen of the 43 defendants are American and 16 Egyptian. The remainder is made up of Germans, Palestinians and Jordanians.
Four US-based groups are involved -- the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House (FH) and the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) -- as well as the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung organisation.
Only seven of the accused Americans are in Egypt. All face travel bans, including Sam LaHood, head of IRI's Egypt office and the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Some have taken refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo.
"There are a lot of people in our government, really top officials in our government, working night and day to resolve this issue," LaHood senior said in an interview with CBS network.
An American diplomat in Egypt told Al-Ahram Weekly it has not been decided yet whether the Americans charged in the case and still in Egypt will attend the trial.
"The US has a strict policy on respecting the Egyptian judiciary and Egyptian law, and it is not clear whether American citizens will attend the trial or not," he said.
The case report prepared by judges Ashraf El-Ashmawi and Sameh Abu Zeid accused all the defendants of setting up and managing the offices of international organisations without licences. Other charges include receiving and accepting funds from non-Egyptian organisations without government approval.
The report claims that a number of NGOs received more than $40 million from NDI, IRI, FH and ICFJ headquarters in the US.
In December the Egyptian authorities raided the NDI and IRI offices and confiscated documents and computers. Among them, according to a report in Al-Ahram daily, are maps which the report claims divide Egypt into four areas with the aim of spreading anarchy. Trainees attending IRI sponsored training courses on political participation are alleged to have received honorariums of LE13,000 a month, money that the Al-Ahram report claims was "given to certain political parties" with the aim of "undermining the sovereignty of Egypt".
Last week Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga told the press that the US had used NGOs to create chaos in Egypt
"The United States decided to use all its resources and tools to contain the political situation in Egypt and push it in a direction that promotes American and also Israeli interests," she added. In testimony before US Congress Kenneth Wollack, the president of NDI, said it was illogical to be charged with the "crime" of receiving Congressionally notified grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour (DRL).
"Other allegations against NDI," he added, "are false. Media reports have claimed that NDI possessed maps in its office that purport to divide Egypt when in fact the maps showed where parliamentary elections would be held and on which date."
"Having read the charges and the many press reports, I hardly recognise the organisation with which I have worked for 26 years and our programme work in Egypt."
Wollack revealed that on 13 February NDI renewed its registration application which was approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He added that Egyptian law states that if a registration application is not formally rejected within 60 days, it should be considered approved. He noted that the Egyptian government had never officially rejected NDI's licence application though it has been pending since 2005.
A statement signed by 30 Egyptian NGOs condemned what they said was a campaign of "ongoing slander intended to intimidate civil society organisations, particularly human rights groups".
"The investigation of the case itself clearly refutes any claims of judicial autonomy or respect for the rule of law. The investigations are taking place in a government office [the Justice Ministry], and the two investigating judges were handpicked by the president of the Cairo Appellate Court," the statement added.
Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, told the Weekly that some memos used as evidence by the investigating judges had been prepared before the 25 January Revolution by the notorious state security apparatus.
"What the military is doing is creating fictitious conflicts with other states in an attempt to distract the public from its catastrophic failure to manage the political administration during the transition," says Hassan.