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U.S., Egypt in Showdown Over NGO Worker Trials

February 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Nineteen Americans working for non-governmental organizations in Egypt could face prosecution by the country's military rulers. Hari Sreenivasan discusses how a trial could potentially jeopardize U.S. aid to Egypt with The Wall Street Journal's Matt Bradley, reporting from Cairo.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, Egypt’s military rulers and the U.S. head for a showdown over Egypt’s threat to bring to trial 19 Americans and 24 others working for non-government groups.

Among those being held, Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. transportation secretary, Ray LaHood. The Obama administration has threatened to cut off nearly $2 billion in military aid if Egypt goes ahead with a trial.

Hari Sreenivasan talked with Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal in Cairo earlier today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Matt, thanks for joining us.

Exactly what are the charges that these Americans and others are being held on?

MATT BRADLEY, The Wall Street Journal: Well, the 43 people who are being charged are facing charges of establishing an illegal organization and accepting and distributing funds illegally without the approval of the Egyptian government.

And those charges, if convicted, they could get a penalty, a financial penalty, or they could get about five years in prison.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so this isn’t just a threat of deportation that these individuals are facing, right?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, it could be that.

And it seems very unrealistic that the government, that the Egyptian government would want to put these people away in jail for several years. But anything is possible at this point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, why exactly is the Egyptian government in its current form doing this? Is there a strategic advantage? What are you hearing?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, it’s very, very difficult to discern exactly why the Egyptian government would want to do something like this.

The Egyptian government, of course, says that this is a judicial investigation and that, once it hits the judiciary, there’s nothing they really can do to stop it, no matter what kind of diplomatic channels the United States tries to use.

However, a lot of people in the NGO community, in the activist community, they say that this is an obviously politicized case and that it started in the government, maybe they’re not as in control of it now as they used to be, but they instigated the case against these NGOs, and that they’re doing this in order to basically deflect blame on some of the violence and continuing protests that have been going on here in Cairo since the revolution last year on to foreign hands.

So the Egyptian government knows very well that the public will lap up any conspiracy theories that involve foreign hands trying to destabilize Egypt for whatever reason. And so that’s one of the things that we have been hearing again and again.

Every time there’s murder or killing in the square where Egyptian forces, the military or the police try to suppress angry dissidents, they say that this violence is not caused by Egyptians opposing the regime. They say it’s caused by foreign hands trying to infiltrate these protest movements and turning them against the Egyptian regime in order to destroy the economy, in order to create chaos, though it’s not quite clear what the political motive is behind that and to what political end that would meet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what about the rhetoric from the United States? Everyone from President Obama to Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Clinton, has tried to turn up the heat a bit and tried to say that this could impact the larger amount of foreign aid that we give to Egypt. Is that resonating at all?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, for one thing, let’s be clear. The Egyptian public is not really talking about this.

They were talking about it at the end of December, when the raids on the NGOs occurred, when police, backed by the military with prosecutors, went into these NGOs, investigated, took a lot of documents and cash and sealed up the offices.

But since then, there hasn’t really been a lot of talk in the media here in Egypt about what’s going on. There’s been many, many — much bigger distractions, including some of the street protests that have been going on now.

But when it comes to what the Egyptian government is saying, they’re basically saying that this is not an issue that they can intervene on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, two of the organizations that have U.S. backing, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, they were actually invited into the country as observers, right?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, at least in the case of NDI. NDI has been here since 2006. And they applied for an application for registration in 2006, but that process has never really come to fruition.

And they’ve called several times the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Social Solidarity, who normally deals with this sort of thing, and they have said, all of your application papers are in order, but we haven’t really come to a decision on whether or not to approve you.

And this is a very similar tactic that the Mubarak regime used, where, if there was sort of an independent satellite station or an international organization that wanted the right to operate here in Egypt, they would allow them to operate openly, but suspend licensing for them, so that they could have a pretext at any moment to shut them down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, where are these individuals now? Are they in custody anywhere? Or are they just in different parts of the city and scattered and waiting for a court date?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, there are 43 individuals total — 19 of them are Americans. And 13 of those Americans are not in the country.

And one of the reasons why is because a lot of these people, they work for organizations like NDI and IRI, and they came and they visited for a couple of weeks or a couple of months at a time in the past year. And the Egyptian government took notice of them and included them on this list of charges.

But there are six Americans who are on this list of people who are facing charges who are still here in Cairo. And we know that three of them are actually taking refuge right now at the U.S. Embassy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what’s the possible outcome here? Could we see a trial situation where we see them in that cage that we have seen so many images of former President Mubarak in?

MATT BRADLEY: It’s quite possible. No one really knows. They might not be arrested. You can face trial in Egypt without having been arrested. So it’s possible that they will not necessarily have to go behind bars.

But the real important outcome that’s coming here is that Congress is going to be taking a very close look at the $1.3 billion in aid that it gives to the Egyptian government every year. Now, in December, there was legislation that was introduced that said that the State Department or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was going to have to certify to Congress that the Egyptian government or the Egyptian military, which is running the Egyptian government, was abiding by the peace treaty with Israel and adhering to certain human rights norms, like freedom of association and freedom of assembly.

And so Hillary Clinton has already threatened the Egyptian military and said that she doesn’t — with — considering this NGO flap, she doesn’t think she is going to be able to certify to Congress that the Egyptian government is abiding by these principles.

And so this $1.3 billion, which is the hallmark and sort of the bedrock on which the Egyptian-American relationship is built, is really at threat, and for the first time really in about 30 years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Matt Bradley from The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

MATT BRADLEY: Thank you.