CAIRO – Egypt’s government won’t back off its criminal investigation of American and other civil society workers even if the U.S. withdraws its financial aid, Egypt’s military-appointed prime minister said Wednesday, in a case that could spell the end of one of the United States’ closest Arab alliances.
Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri’s remarks were his first public comment on the brewing diplomatic crisis over Egypt’s prosecution of 43 nongovernmental organization workers focused on democracy-building. At least 16 Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are among those facing charges of illegally receiving foreign funds.
Outraged U.S. lawmakers have vowed to cut Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion military aid package, a move that effectively would end the cozy relationship that the United States and Egypt enjoyed during the 30 years of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Egyptian officials have said they’re eager to remake the country’s foreign policy, with an emphasis on sovereignty and a respect for popular opinion, though critics say the ruling generals are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship.
“Egypt will apply the law in the case of the NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons,” Ganzouri said at a news conference in Cairo.
Also Wednesday, two investigative judges in the case told journalists they’d gathered more than 160 pieces of evidence against the NGO workers, including maps, cash and videos taken of churches and military facilities. It was the first time that prosecutors had publicly described any evidence related to the proceeding, which human rights advocacy groups have deemed a show trial.
Judge Sameh Abu Zaid, one of the judges leading the probe, said at a news conference that one NGO, which he didn’t identify, had sought assistance from a local group to build a website listing the number and locations of churches in Egypt. The same organization, he added, had mapped out military installations in the cities of Ismailia and Suez.
That kind of activity, the judge said, falls outside the standard work of a pro-democracy NGO.
Abu Zaid defended the investigation as in line with Egyptian law and said the judges were within their rights to ban the defendants from leaving the country, which especially has outraged Washington officials, who call it a de-facto detention. Several of the foreign defendants left the country before the ban; at least three are holed up at the U.S. Embassy to avoid arrest.