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02/17/2012 03:19 pm ET

Egypt NGO Crisis: Rep. Gary Ackerman Calls For A Softer Approach To Egypt's Military Regime

WASHINGTON -- When an Egyptian military delegation abruptly halted its official visit to the United States earlier this month, amid a furious uproar over its government's investigation of several American non-governmental organization workers, they had to skip out on high level meetings with several senators.

But it turns out that at least one meeting on Capitol Hill made the cut: a closed-door session with Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

Ackerman mentioned his meeting with the generals during a Wednesday hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saying that the military officials seemed to be taken aback by the developments in the NGO cases.

"They were caught very much by surprise that the formal charges were brought," Ackerman said, describing a meeting he says took place immediately before the generals returned to their hotel to pack and fly home.

Surprise has been the predominant reaction to the ongoing NGO controversy. The aid workers, from pro-democracy groups like the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House, have been under suspicion and in some cases blocked from departing the country since December, after security officials raided their offices in Cairo. They have been accused of fomenting unrest in the country, charges the NGOs all deny, and recently the Egyptian judiciary announced plans to formally prosecute them.

With each escalation, the reaction from the American political establishment has grown more intense. Some have condemned the military's treatment of civil society as harsher than Hosni Mubarak's regime, while others, most recently Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have called for the U.S. to suspend its more than $1 billion in annual aid to Egypt until the situation is resolved. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is on the board of IRI and has taken on the toughest lines regarding the military government, is scheduled to travel to Egypt this weekend to meet with the military officials there as part of a softer diplomatic tack, according to Foreign Policy.

Through it all, the true intentions of Egypt's ruling military regime, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, remains the enduring mystery of the crisis. Many reports have suggested that an official from the Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Abul-Naga, a civilian holdover from Mubarak's regime, was in fact the main protagonist behind the charges against the international aid workers.

For his part, Ackerman, who on Wednesday denounced the NGO prosecutions as "a bunch of political, over-hyped hokum," urges restraint for those who might wish to intensify condemnations of the Egyptian military, he told The Huffington Post. He points to meetings like the one he held as evidence of both SCAF's isolation from the judicial process, and the importance of not undermining what has proven to be a strategically valuable relationship for several decades.

"We shouldn't be shooting ourselves in the head to solve this problem," Ackerman told HuffPost on Thursday.

"We get a lot out of this relationship, and these guys haven't exactly gone to the dark side: They haven't gone to war with Israel, they haven't welcomed al Qaeda, they are an important asset that we have in the region," Ackerman added. "We can't say, 'You can't keep using us but we will keep using you.' Prostitution doesn't work that way."

Ackerman got to know some of the Egyptian military officials during tense negotiations last fall over one of his constituents and former intern, Ilan Grapel, an Israeli-American 27 year old who was detained, not unlike the NGO workers, on suspicion of spying and instigating violent protest.

Grapel was eventually released after Israel agreed to free 25 Egyptian prisoners, but the process also came at the end of complicated deliberations with Egypt's Justice Department, by way of the more-amenable military, Ackerman said.

"These were the people I primary dealt with when I dealt with getting my constituent back," Ackerman said. "These guys weren't necessarily the ones who grabbed him, but these were the guys who were able to apply the right arguments to the right people who actually sprung him."

When he met with the SCAF generals this month, Ackerman told HuffPost, he tried to impress upon them how the whole situation looked from the American point of view, something he thinks they may not have fully considered.

"When we look at the scene of Americans being held against their will in a country going through a revolutionary process, we tend to think of uglier situations that have occurred in the region," Ackerman said, referring to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. "I don't know if that had occurred to them before. It certainly was heard and I think it was an effective thing for them to think about."

At the Wednesday hearing, Ackerman quarreled over the question of SCAF's culpability with Michele Dunne, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who also happens to be married to one of the wanted NGO workers, Freedom House's Middle East director, Charles Dunne.

Dunne told HuffPost that she "agreed with [Ackerman] that we don't want to destroy our relationship with Egypt," but that it was shortsighted to suggest SCAF shouldn't be held to a tougher standard as long as the NGO crisis persists.

"I think we should be trying to help the SCAF find a way out of this," Dunne said. "However, we can't let them off the hook. They are in the place of the president of Egypt until the president is elected and so they are the ultimate decision makers. They can't just say, 'Sorry, we can't do it.' I'm sorry, but there's nobody else who can. There's nobody else we can talk to."

Ackerman, meanwhile, told HuffPost that he is optimistic that the "thoughtful people" in the SCAF can prevail upon the "other people who are not as thoughtful" to resolve the NGO crisis.

"The point is, we and they have a problem," Ackerman said. "We can try to resolve it by each beating each other up, call everybody names, but that's not going to solve it."


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