(Originally published by Al Jazeera English)
Doha, Qatar - Egypt’s prosecution of 43 pro-democracy political trainers from five mostly US-funded nonprofit groups moves to court on Sunday after months of investigation and the failure of numerous efforts to resolve the case quietly.
Sixteen Americans have been charged, seven of whom remain in Egypt and are banned from leaving, throwing the future of billions of dollars of US aid into question.
But as a summary of the government’s investigation recently obtained by Al Jazeera shows, it is a battle over US money and the influence it represents that lies at the crux of a case that has inflamed Egyptian anger over foreign interference.
The document shows that the two judges assigned to investigate the democracy-promotion groups relied heavily on testimony and evidence provided by Fayza Aboul Naga, a long-serving Mubarak-era cabinet minister who has quarreled with the United States for years over economic assistance.
Four of the nonprofits are based in the United States, while one is German. The government alleges that two of the US groups - the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute - received $40 million in 2011, while the United States distributed an additional $50 million to other NGOs in Egypt.
NDI, IRI and other US groups have been operating in Egypt since the mid-2000s, when the US government began funding groups that were not approved by the Egyptian government. Egypt has never officially approved their presence, but it has let them operate freely.
Sixteen of the defendants, including NDI and IRI's directors, are American citizens, though only seven remain in the country. Fourteen are Egyptian citizens.
In her testimony, recorded in the document, Aboul Naga portrayed Egypt’s revolution as a crucial chance to restore the rightful balance of power with the United States, which she accused of using the NGOs as leverage to pressure and subjugate Egypt.
To fuel her case, Aboul Naga seized on widely held fears of foreign meddling swirling in Egypt's violent transition, accusing the NGOs of secretly promoting a US-Israeli agenda and working with the Central Intelligence Agency.
The dossier includes statements from twelve additional government witnesses, including officers from the internal security services and a former NGO employee, many of whom stressed that foreign-funded civil society groups were a threat to national security and an attempt to infiltrate Egypt and manipulate events.
Though Egypt tacitly allowed the NGOs involved in the case to work openly for years, the ousted government of Hosni Mubarak held them in bureaucratic limbo, neither granting them licenses nor prosecuting them.
Now the groups face charges of operating without approval - an allegation that can easily be proved - and illegally receiving foreign funds.
The government’s dossier helps explain why the case has suddenly escalated and illustrates, amid the incendiary accusations, how Egypt’s new government looks to be less friendly toward the United States and more willing to confront foreign pressure, whether real or perceived.
'The previous regime was fearful'
The 42-page English translation of the investigation includes witness testimony and descriptions of seized evidence. It was signed by the investigating judges on February 5, a day before the Justice Ministry announced indictments.
The accused groups include the prominent National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, both affiliated with the US government, as well as Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The document was provided to the defendants and their lawyers and not widely disseminated, though both Egyptian and US media have reported some of its contents.
While Aboul Naga’s testimony is the longest and most colourful, the dossier also includes statements from a lieutenant colonel in the internal security services and an Egyptian-American woman who resigned from IRI and then backed the case against her former colleagues.
Throughout their testimonies, witnesses expressed suspicion that groups like IRI, NDI and Freedom House spied for the US government. Aboul Naga stated bluntly that they “worked in coordination with the CIA”. Multiple key witnesses described the fall of Mubarak as a chance to right these wrongs.
Mahmoud Ali Mahmoud, a lieutenant colonel in the Interior Ministry’s National Security bureau, testified that the NGOs supported political parties to pressure the government and promote US interests. They “adopted” the cause of minorities including Nubians and Coptic Christians to cause “sectarian and racial conflicts” and weaken Egypt, he said.
“The previous ruling regime was fearful of being criticised, attacked, or accused of violating human rights and freedoms,” Mahmoud said. “Adopting such policy has jeopardised the interests of Egypt, as these organisations have had policies harmful to the interests of Egypt whether economic or political.”
Resigned employee fans media flames
The NGO investigation has been accompanied by fiery tirades against the groups in the Egyptian media, which has eagerly latched on to the allegations of foreign influence.
Mustafa Bakri, a member of parliament who has railed against the United States and Israel and hosts a talk show on a popular satellite channel, complained that the NGO employees’ potential six-month jail sentences were too light and called for their execution. A separate news website posted the defendants’ names, addresses and passport numbers until it was pressured to remove them.
The media campaign has been bolstered by a former IRI staffer, Dawlat Eissa, who resigned in October and then filed a complaint against IRI with the government. Her testimony is second only to Aboul Naga’s in length.
Eissa, a 27-year-old dual Egyptian-American citizen, testified that IRI hid its finances from oversight by funneling money through employees’ personal bank accounts. She said the group used public opinion surveys to ask inappropriate questions about religion and wanted to present its findings to US embassy officials, which she found “unacceptable”.
On December 29, after armed police raided the five groups' offices and seized documents, money and equipment, Eissa appeared on a talk show hosted by Wael al-Ibrashi, a prominent lawyer, and claimed that IRI and NDI had aimed to divide the Muslim and Christian communities.
“The witness said that she has prioritised the interest of Egypt over her own personal interests as an IRI employee who earns a big monthly salary, because she cannot accept any foreign interference in the Egyptian affairs,” the dossier states. “Even [the] USA would never accept any person or entity working illegally on its territories.”
Aboul Naga's battle
Though anger over the NGOs came to a head when the groups’ presence in Egypt ballooned in the wake of the revolution last year, Aboul Naga’s complaints about US financial assistance date to 2004, the year she joined the Mubarak administration as international cooperation minister and began managing foreign economic aid.
Unlike military aid, which has steadily averaged $1.3 billion per year, economic aid began to decline that year.
Aboul Naga and other officials consider US aid payment for Egypt’s participation in the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and decisions over how to use the money as Egypt’s alone. Aboul Naga testified that when the Bush administration began reducing economic aid, she objected to the “unilateral” action, considering it a violation of the Camp David accords.
A year later, the aid issue escalated. Republican Senator Sam Brownback attached an amendment to the foreign appropriations bill that stripped Egypt of control over any US money meant for democracy promotion.
The “Brownback amendment,” which Aboul Naga mentioned by name in her testimony, allowed US agencies to bankroll groups like IRI and NDI that had never been approved by the Egyptian government. Supplied with funds, the groups rented offices in Egypt and expanded.
Under Mubarak, Aboul Naga could not act against the NGOs, but the revolution was a chance to even the scales, she testified. To illustrate the stakes - a "blatant challenge of Egyptian sovereignty" - she described what she saw as other examples of US and Israeli-sponsored “chaos," such as the conflict in Libya and the secession of South Sudan.
“The former regime created an ideal situation for the United States and Israel that neither wished its ouster. Thus the United States managed to … [cause] turbulence for the former regime to ensure it bowed to it,” Aboul Naga said. “As of January 25, 2011, a historical chance for Egyptian renaissance materialized so that Egypt would take the position worthy of its regional and international prestige.”
The tipping point
Egyptian suspicions of the NGOs' work finally boiled over after the revolution, when tens of millions of dollars in new funding flowed to the groups - roughly $40 million to NDI and IRI alone, according to Egypt.
NDI opened two new offices, in Alexandria and Assiut, while IRI opened three, in Luxor and Alexandria as well as an additional space in Cairo. The groups also went on a hiring spree, in part to prepare for parliamentary election monitoring in November and December. Most of the NDI and IRI witnesses interrogated in the investigation were hired in 2011.
The groups trained dozens of activists throughout the year, including well-known figures of the revolution, like members of the April 6th Movement. They also advised a broad swath of political parties - from the liberal and secular Free Egyptians to the ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party - on how to run campaigns, conduct surveys and manage public relations. (IRI, however, reportedly does not deal with Islamist parties.)
By July, the dossier states, the cabinet had ordered the Justice Ministry to launch a fact-finding commission to look into US aid to the nonprofits.
Adding to Egyptian concerns, the NGOs' money was hard to trace. The government alleged that while NDI kept a bank account under its name, IRI transferred salaries to employees' personal accounts directly from Washington DC. Witnesses, including an IRI accountant, said that the group's directors used their own credit cards for expenses.
Aboul Naga testified, incorrectly, that IRI was a "financing arm" of the Republican Party in the United States.
In October, IRI director Sam LaHood told employees to collect the group's work-related documents - about 166 kilograms of paper - and ship them to the United States after scanning and saving them on flash memory drives, the dossier states.
Eissa, the Egyptian-American IRI staffer who testified against her former colleagues, resigned after the shipment, as did other Egyptian IRI employees.
There is no allegation that the shipment was illegal, but it was enough to arouse Eissa's suspicion, and suspicions may count for much in an investigation where charges are easily proved while motivations and goals are far more complicated.
As the initial fact-finding commission concluded: "The presence of many organisations which prima facie work on human rights, [but] nonetheless receive foreign funding ... arouses suspicions about its use for illegal purposes."