CAIRO — Egypt's government won't back off its criminal investigation of American and other civil society workers even if the U.S. withdraws its financial aid, Egypt's military-appointed prime minister said Wednesday, in a case that could spell the end of one of the United States' closest Arab alliances.
Prime Minister Kamal el Ganzouri's remarks were his first public comment on the brewing diplomatic crisis over Egypt's prosecution of 43 nongovernmental organization workers focused on democracy-building. At least 16 Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are among those facing charges of illegally receiving foreign funds.
Outraged U.S. lawmakers have vowed to cut Egypt's annual $1.3 billion military aid package, a move that effectively would end the cozy relationship that the United States and Egypt enjoyed during the 30 years of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak's regime. Egyptian officials have said they're eager to remake the country's foreign policy, with an emphasis on sovereignty and a respect for popular opinion, though critics say the ruling generals are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship.
"Egypt will apply the law in the case of the NGOs, and will not back down because of aid or other reasons," Ganzouri told a news conference in Cairo.
Also Wednesday, two investigative judges in the case told journalists they'd gathered more than 160 pieces of evidence against the NGO workers, including maps, cash and videos taken of churches and military facilities. It was the first time that prosecutors had publicly described any evidence related to the proceeding, which human rights advocacy groups have deemed a show trial.
Judge Sameh Abu Zaid, one of the judges leading the probe, told a news conference that one NGO, which he didn't identify, had sought assistance from a local group to build a website listing the number and locations of churches in Egypt. The same organization, he added, had mapped out military installations in the cities of Ismailia and Suez.
That kind of activity, the judge said, falls outside the standard work of a pro-democracy NGO.
Abu Zaid defended the investigation as in line with Egyptian law and said the judges were within their rights to ban the defendants from leaving the country, which especially has outraged Washington officials, who call it a de facto detention. Several of the foreign defendants left the country before the ban; at least three are holed up at the U.S. Embassy to avoid arrest.
"In such situations, the judges place a travel ban to be able to continue the investigation," Abu Zaid said.
While the scrutiny of foreign NGOs began under Mubarak's regime, which blocked many of them from the proper registration process, the issue exploded Dec. 29 when elite Egyptian troops raided offices that belonged to 17 Egyptian and international NGOs. Among the groups targeted were the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, all major U.S.-funded organizations.
Prosecutors accompanying the troops seized documents, computers, cellphones and financial records before sealing the offices.
Charles Dunne, the head of Freedom House's Egypt office, is among the defendants, but he was in Washington when his offices were raided. In a phone interview, Dunne vigorously denied that foreign aid groups had ventured beyond their mandates in a country where the military is in charge and Egyptians of all backgrounds view foreign NGOs with suspicion.
"We did not push too hard," he said. "Freedom House is active worldwide. People who work for us in Egypt, in NGOs, are all committed to transition to civilian rule. There is an appetite for this."
Officially, the defendants face charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and engaging in banned activities related to the groups' training of candidates and other programs related to the recent parliamentary elections. Some of the charges carry possible penalties of as many as five years in prison.
The unspoken charge at the heart of the case, however, is that the foreigners are the shadowy "hidden hands" that Egypt's transitional authorities unfailingly blame for the unrest that's continued since Mubarak resigned a year ago.
Amnesty International, the global human rights advocacy group, issued a statement Tuesday that called on the government to "stop holding NGOs hostage" and to amend the strict laws governing civil society. Egyptian NGOs rejected a draft law proposed in January, according to Amnesty, because it extended the government's broad powers to block registration and to scrutinize the groups' funding from abroad.
"These international associations have become the latest scapegoats as the authorities desperately spin their story of foreign conspiracies," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program, said in the statement.
Leading the foreign-conspiracy camp is Fayza Aboul Naga, Egypt's minister of planning and international cooperation, whose apparent zealousness in pushing the NGO case has made her official title ironic — and the fodder for dark jokes among the political elites, who are watching the fraying of U.S.-Egyptian relations with alarm.
Aboul Naga, one of the few Mubarak-era appointees to remain in government since last year's uprising, is said to be close to the ruling generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Analysts say Aboul Naga is pushing the council too far, and they warn that the NGO crackdown could seriously damage Egypt's ability to court foreign donors and investors to rescue its ruined economy.
Aboul Naga, who appeared beside Ganzouri at the news conference Wednesday, dismissed the notion that her campaign could lead to a serious rupture in U.S.-Egyptian relations. The alliance, she said, was too old and important to be boiled down to one issue.
"Egypt needs the U.S. and the U.S. needs Egypt," Aboul Naga said. "This is just one of many files and it shouldn't affect strategic relations."
She also noted that the Egyptian government was seeking separate loans from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the African Development Bank totaling $4.7 billion.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, is due in Cairo later this week. He's expected to tell the Egyptian generals that unless the charges are dismissed, the country is at risk of losing its $1.3 billion in annual aid.
(Al Desoukie is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman contributed to this report from Washington.)
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