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There is an opportunity to have a much better understanding about the origins of the Arab Spring in light of the trial, or threat of trial of 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, in Egypt. What stands out is that the trial fizzled, the 3 judges withdrew from the proceedings with the presiding judge Mohammed Shukri stating “uneasiness” as the reason and the original government minister who supported the raids upon the NGO offices, Fayza Aboulnaga, changing her strident tone to softer notes. On December 29th of 2011 17 raids on 10 NGOs were conducted, 3 of them American. The American NGOs were the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. They are accused of receiving illegal foreign funds, operating illegally in Egypt and doing political work. By looking closely we might get a glimpse at the underbelly of spreading democracy via revolution.
U.S. conditional support
A bit about Egypt-U.S. relations and NGO work. The Camp David accords put Egypt and Israel into a special situation whereby the U.S. agreed to an aid package of several billion dollars a year to each to facilitate the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East”. The Accord was a crowning jewel of the Carter Administration bringing Anwar El Sadat of Egypt and Menchem Begin of Israel to Camp David for a 13 day negotiation intensive. Out of this came the Egypt/Israel peace agreement which is in force since the signing in March 1979. There are 35,000 Egyptian NGOs and 83 foreign NGOs, of which 23 are American are registered to work in Egypt. The problem was that these 3 particular NGOs had been operating in Egypt unregistered for years, functioning at a minimum level and funded directly by the State Department. The Mubarak regime protested through back channels but nothing changed. In February of 2011, as Egypt’s winter revolution began, the U.S. government announced that the activities of these NGOs and some Egyptian counterparts, should drastically expand. They redirected $150 million from the monies for economic assistance towards them, violating 2 provisions of the 1979 accord: one, that Egypt has the final say as to whom receives assistance and two, that this assistance go to registered NGOs. In June the U.S. announced that $60 million would be targeted to the IRI, NDI and Freedom House, raising tensions even higher as they remained unregistered. In July of 2011 the Egyptian cabinet called for the Justice ministers to start a fact finding mission on all foreign funding. The reported findings from this fact finding mission, released in September, led to the December 29 raids.
Fayza Aboulnaga, Mubarak minister of planning and international cooperation and current member of parliament, found it impossible to move against the NGOs while Mubarak was in office. She objected to the Bush Administration’s unilateral decision to reduce economic aid, saying it violated the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Republican Senator Sam Brownback didn’t help relations with Egypt when he attached an amendment to a foreign appropriations bill that stripped Egypt of control over any monies meant for democratic promotion. Aboulnaga sees their work as sponsored “chaos” such as was seen in Libya and what ended up dividing of Sudan.
With this new infusion of cash the IRI and NDI got busy. The NDI opened two new offices, in Alexandria and Assiut, the IRI opened three, in Luxor and Alexandria and an additional office in Cairo. The groups also went on a hiring spree, in part to prepare for parliamentary election monitoring in November and December. Both NGOs began training dozens of activists, some of which who became leading figures of April 9th brigade during the revolt. In addition they advised a diverse set of political parties, like the liberal and secular Free Egyptians and even the ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party, on how to coordinate a political campaign, gauge public sentiment and how to handle their public image.
Suspicions inside and out
The movement of suspicion started from within, by those working for US NGOs. Dawlat Sweillam, an Egyptian-American working for IRI, quit her job because she thought that their activities were counter to Egyptian laws. She testified that IRI cloaked its finances from oversight by shifting its money through employees’ personal bank accounts and that directors paid for their activities using credit cards. She also let it be known that the group used public opinion surveys asking questions about religion she felt was outside their stated mission and was going to present these findings to American embassy personnel, not Egyptian officials. It was also reported that in October IRI Director Sam Lahood had all the group’s work-related documents, about 365 pounds of paper, shipped to the United States after having them scanned and saved to disc. This action prompted additional personnel to quit. Though not illegal, it fueled the fire.
Leaked Egyptian intelligence reports, said that some of the computers seized in the raid had sensitive information affecting Egypt’s national security. It also charged that Sam LaHood, based in the IRI office in Egypt, had advised his employees not to disclose their foreign nationalities under any circumstances. Early on Fayza Aboulnaga accused these organizations of sowing unrest in Egypt and working to undermine the country. Egyptian state media published leaked intelligence documents that accuse the groups of implementing an U.S.-Israeli plot involving the CIA to divide Christians and Muslims.
The December 29th raid was unprecedented and sent shock waves through the State Department. Employees were detained and questioned. Several weeks after this, Lahood tried to escape to Qatar, but was blocked from boarding the flight and informed that he and colleagues were on a no fly list because they were under investigation. Fearing his fate and those of other employees, Lahood took himself and 3 other American employees to the American Embassy in Cairo. By January 25th of 2012, charges were leveled against 43 workers, 19 of which were American.
From here the story goes ballistic with major pressure be applied by Secretary of State Clinton and Defensive Secretary Panetta playing the heavies. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) threatened to cut off the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt, and a floor vote was attempted at the insistence Rand Paul (R-KY).
But on March 1 a chartered DC-3 was allowed to collect all 19 Americans and lift them away to the US, after someone in our government forked over $5 million dollars. What they left behind are the 15 Egyptian workers, maybe more, who faced the same charges of undermining Egyptian sovereignty and fomenting unrest. They are left to fend for themselves and the news has gone dark on their predicament.
As Lahood and others lifted off the in flight movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. They found that funny and were ecstatic that they will be tried in absentia.