CAIRO: An Egyptian Cabinet minister has stoked tension with the US over funding nonprofit groups working for democracy in Egypt, accusing Washington of intentionally seeking to create chaos to prevent the country from prospering.
The comments published Tuesday in state media were made by International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a leftover from the old Hosni Mubarak regime. She made them in October during testimony to two judges investigating allegations the groups used foreign funds to foment unrest in Egypt.
But the decision to release her testimony now suggests that Egypt is not trying to resolve the worst crisis with its top ally in some 30 years and her comments could make things even worse.
The clash began when security forces raided the offices of nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding in December, seizing documents and computers.
Egypt accuses the groups of using the foreign funds to foment pro-democracy protests against the country’s military rulers, who took over after Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising a year ago. The ruling generals have repeatedly accused the pro-democracy groups behind the ouster of their former patron of following a "foreign agenda" and of seeking to plunge Egypt into chaos or even topple the state.
The groups have challenged the legitimacy of military rule and are opposed to the military’s behind-the-scenes attempts to gain immunity from prosecution and protection from any civilian oversight after they hand over power.
Troops are blamed by activists for killing some 100 protesters since the generals took power. They also accuse the military of torturing detainees and hauling at least 12,000 civilians for trial before military tribunals. The brutal beating by troops of women protesters in December has created a huge uproar, drawing scathing criticism from rights groups at home and abroad.
Several of the groups targeted are American. And last week, authorities referred 43 employees of the groups, including at least 16 Americans, to trial before a criminal court. The Americans include Sam LaHood, son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
No date has been set for the trial, but all 43 are banned from travel.
The United States has threatened to cut off aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance — if the issue is not resolved.
Aboul Naga claimed international and regional powers did not want Egypt to prosper following Mubarak’s ouster, so they resorted to the creation of chaos.
"But the United States and Israel could not directly create and sustain a state of chaos, so they used direct funding, especially American, as the means to reach those goals," she was quoted as saying.
She also claimed that some of the money came from the US economic assistance to Egypt and that Washington has directly and illegally funded the nonprofit groups in what amounted to interference in Egypt’s internal affairs, a challenge to its sovereignty and harming national security.
"Evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests, not only in Egypt, but in the whole region," she was quoted as saying.
The crisis speaks to the political turmoil in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster and the military’s rise to power to replace him. Many suspect the quarrel with the Americans may have been timed by the ruling generals to help them achieve key policy objectives as they enter the home stretch of the transition to civilian rule. They have promised to hand over power after the election of a president in June.
"It may have been staged, but the crisis is now beyond the control of the generals," said Egyptian rights lawyer and activist Negad Borai. "In some ways, it may be a reflection of divisions with the ruling military council. It is also likely to be part of a struggle for power at a critical time."
The risk is the military could inflict irreparable damage to relations with the United States. And the magnitude of that risk was reflected in comments by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Tuesday.
Emphasizing the gravity of the crisis were comments Tuesday by America’s top soldier, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who met with Egyptian army leaders in Cairo over the weekend.
Dempsey said that the issue stood in the way of planned talks on military cooperation, which can continue only if the problem is resolved. He stopped short of saying Egypt’s ruling general had agreed to drop the charges, but said they had understood the gravity of the issue.
"I am convinced that potentially they were underestimating the impact of this on our relationship. When I left there, there was no doubt that they understood the seriousness of it," he said.
Egypt’s military has been the nation’s most powerful institution since army officers seized power in a coup in 1952. It has enjoyed tremendous influence since, with all of the nation’s four presidents hailing from military background. In recent years, it built a massive economic empire that is shrouded in secrecy and, according to some estimates, accounts for 25 percent of the nation’s GDP.
To protect these interests after they hand over power, the generals will need to ensure that the nation’s next president is loyal to or from the armed forces, insert language in the new constitution that gives the military the final say in major foreign and defense policies and discredit and marginalize the youthful pro-democracy groups that ousted Mubarak and are now calling for the military to immediately step down.
They also want to protect their budget from civilian oversight.
An understanding widely thought to have been reached between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist group that won just under half of all seats in parliament in recent elections, should facilitate an agreement on the next president as well as the constitution.
The 508-seat chamber, where the Brotherhood and other Islamists control 70 percent of the seats, will select a 100-member panel to draft the constitution, giving the Brotherhood a big say on the process.
A quarrel with the United States over its funding for nonprofit groups resonates with many Egyptians, who view the West, and Washington in particular, with suspicion and allows them to project an image of themselves as the most patriotic defenders of the nation.
"The generals can see that power is slipping from their hands and are frightened that their secrets will be made public," said Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. "So, they are wrapping themselves in the flag and are keen to appear as the protectors of Egypt. It is common knowledge that the United States is not popular in Egypt." –Donna Cassata contributed to this report from Washington D.C.