Dozens of lawmakers are warning that the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. gives Cairo each year is in jeopardy unless the Egyptian government lifts the travel ban on personnel from American nongovernmental organizations and stops harassing civil-society groups there.
In a letter to the leader of Egypt’s military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, 41 members of Congress said the winter raids on NGOs — including the Washington-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House — are “completely unacceptable and constitute an attack on Egyptian civil society writ large.”
“The absence of a quick and satisfactory resolution to this issue will make it increasingly difficult for congressional supporters of a strong U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship to defend current levels of assistance to Egypt — especially in this climate of budget cuts in Washington,” according to the letter released on Friday by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and signed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
“We hope the Egyptian government will immediately allow these offices to reopen, return all confiscated property, end the investigations into these organizations and other civil-society groups, and allow NGOs to carry out their activities in an unfettered manner,” the letter said.
Egypt's caretaker government has been ramping up criticism of U.S. funding for these civil-society organizations, accusing them of interfering in domestic politics and stirring unrest. The Washington-based groups now fear their employees who were monitoring the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt may be put on trial. IRI’s country director, Sam LaHood — who is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s son — was barred from leaving Egypt and is on a no-fly list along with other IRI and NDI employees. LaHood and a few other Americans are taking shelter at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo amid fears for their safety.
"That’s the worry," IRI's president, Lorne Craner, recently told National Journal, "[that] all of a sudden you’re going to turn on your TV and see these Americans in an Egyptian courtroom."
The lawmakers also sent letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, reminding them of new conditions on obligating security assistance to Egypt. The conditions, which President Obama signed into law in December, require Clinton to certify that Egypt is supporting the transition to civilian government and implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law before obligating the funds.
“The U.S. should withhold certification until these fundamental human rights are protected, which regrettably seems impossible under the present circumstances,” that letter said.
With a list of about 400 civil-society groups in Egypt reportedly under investigation, threats to withhold aid are also brewing in the Senate. The chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the new conditions on military aid were designed to communicate to the Egyptian people that the U.S. supports their demand for democracy and fundamental freedoms – and to “send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over.”
“We value the relationship and will provide substantial amounts of aid, but not unconditionally,” Leahy said on Friday in a statement for the Congressional Record. “They must do their part to support the transition to civilian government. If the assault against international and Egyptian nongovernmental organizations continues, several of the requirements for certification could not be met.”
Meanwhile, an Egyptian military delegation is in Washington for meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., who will meet with the delegation next week, said the NGO flashpoint is potentially “very damaging” for U.S.-Egyptian relations.
The NGO workers "do not take part in partisan politics; they teach people how democracy works," McCain told National Journal. "And we’re proud of their record. And for them to be accused of crimes is absolutely unacceptable.”