Egypt's NGO Crackdown May Mean Icy Reception For Military Delegation On Capitol Hill
A visiting delegation of Egyptian military officials, in the United States for a routine tour and consultations, are likely to receive a rough welcome when they arrive on Capitol Hill this week for the last leg of their American venture.
On Sunday, the Egyptian government indicated that they would press ahead with criminal prosecutions in the case of some 40 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, who stand accused of working without proper licensing. Many had been repeatedly rebuffed when attempting to register with Egypt's convoluted bureaucracy in the past.
Officials with the NGOs have denied the charges ever since armed security personnel raided their offices in Cairo in late December.
The visiting military delegation -- part of a regularly scheduled and routine tour of meetings with American governmental officials and defense companies that contract with the Egyptian government -- can expect their reception to be less diplomatic than on previous trips to the Hill. Under normal circumstances, the visits are low-profile affairs, with the delegation meeting staffers or perhaps a legislator from a district hoping to secure a military contract, according to people familiar with the visits.
This year, legislators have pledged to confront the officials directly over recent transgressions.
On Friday, in a possible sign of things to come, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) took the unusual step of challenging Egypt's leaders from the floor of the Senate.
"I hope the Egyptian authorities fully appreciate the seriousness of this situation and what is at stake," Leahy said in a statement, which also included a lengthy recitation of the regime's many recent missteps. "They need to permit these organizations to reopen their offices, return the confiscated property, end investigations of their activities and the activities of Egyptian groups, and register them without conditions so they can continue to support the democratic transition."
Leahy authored provisions in the most recent foreign operations budget, imposing new language that requires that the Secretary of State certify that Egypt's military is overseeing a sufficiently paced democratic transition before some $1.3 billion in security assistance funds can be paid out.
Also on Friday, 41 congressmen signed on to a stern letter, circulated by the office of Rep. Frank Wolf (D-Va.), warning the Egyptian military leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, that unless the military government reverses course, funding to Egypt could be in jeopardy.
"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," the letter read. "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 Egyptian delegation's exact plans for their Capitol Hill visit are still being negotiated, but over the weekend congressional sources said the group had no plans to meet with Rep. Wolf, Sen. Leahy or the Senate appropriators who introduced the recent aid restrictions.
Two senators who are planning to meet the generals, Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), leading members of the Armed Services Committee, pledged last week to raise the issue of NGOs with the delegation.
"During their visit, the Egyptian delegation needs to hear a clear and consistent message from both Capitol Hill and the administration: U.S. assistance to Egypt -- which totals $1.3 [billion] to the military alone, about a fifth of Egypt's military budget -- depends on the administration's being able to certify to Congress that the Egyptian government is taking steps to move toward civilian government and protect civil liberties," David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, one of the American NGOs under investigation in Cairo, wrote last week in the Hill. "Recent developments make such certification impossible."
Communications with the Egyptian government have become increasingly intense over the past several days, as top American officials have sought clarity -- and to impress upon their counterparts the seriousness of American concerns about the recent actions of the Egyptian government.
On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Egyptian foreign minister at a security conference in Munich and had a chance to caution him personally about American concerns.
"I had a chance to once again express our deep concerns about what is happening to our NGOs, and Americans and others who work for them." Clinton told reporters there. "We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt. We do not want that."
But administration officials have generally remained circumspect about the tone of the discussions, including top-level meetings last week between the visiting military delegation and officials at the Pentagon and State Department.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, described a meeting on Thursday between the Egyptian delegation and Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, as "part of a regular dialogue between the United States and Egypt on our security assistance."
Toner did confirm to reporters that the NGO issue had been raised.