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Lawyer: U.S. groups pawns in aid dispute

Egypt says they are ‘working illegally’

- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

CAIRO — Americans facing trial in Egypt because of the activities of their pro-democracy groups are caught in a dispute over aid between the U.S. government and Egypt, a lawyer representing the Americans said Tuesday.

In a measure of the depth of the tensions, an Egyptian government delegation abruptly canceled meetings in Washington with U.S. lawmakers set for Monday and Tuesday, after angry American officials warned that the clash could jeopardize more than $1 billion in annual aid to Egypt.

A senior Egyptian official confirmed that the government has objected for years to the United States directing part of its aid to pro-democracy and human-rights groups, calling the practice illegal and acknowledging that a cut in U.S. aid could follow.

The dispute has led to 19 Americans facing trial and six banned from leaving Egypt. Among the six is Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. A number of the Americans have taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Sam LaHood is the director of the Egyptian program at the Washington-based International Republican Institute. Other Americans facing trial work for the National Democratic Institute, also based in Washington.

The dispute began with raids by Egyptian security forces on 17 offices of 10 advocacy groups last month, evoking denunciations from the United States and other countries. It also reinforced charges by Egyptian protesters that the military rulers who took over a year ago from ousted President Hosni Mubarak are perpetuating his regime's oppressive tactics.

The investigation into the work of the nonprofit groups is closely linked to the political turmoil that has engulfed the nation since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, a U.S. ally who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years.

The military rulers charge that the groups fund and support anti-government protests. The military claims that "foreign hands" are behind the opposition to its rule. They frequently depict the protesters as receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.

Lawyer Tharwat Abdel-Shahed said Tuesday that Egypt's rulers objected to the funds for the groups being deducted from U.S. aid to the government.

"This has sparked the government's anger," he said Tuesday, putting the total funding directed to the groups at $45 million.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel. The United States is due to give Egypt $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid in 2012.

Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the clash over the advocacy groups has thrown U.S. aid to Egypt into doubt.

Fayza Aboul-Naga, the Egyptian minister for international cooperation, said earlier that Egypt has been protesting a "unilateral" U.S. measure to direct part of its economic aid to human-rights and pro-democracy groups since 2004, according to her office. She described it as political funding that is not allowed by Egyptian law.

A statement from her office quoted Ms. Aboul-Naga as saying it was the duty of the groups not to operate until they get permission.

"They know they are working illegally and without license," said Marawan Badr, a top aide to Ms. Aboul-Naga.

Mr. Abdel-Shahed said Egypt is wrong in its interpretation.

"The Egyptian government thinks that a prior permission is needed before the U.S. directs its money to its recipients," he said, "However, the U.S. government says there are no conditions, and it is free to use its money."

Talk of cutting aid comes during a critical, yearlong downturn in Egypt's economy. On Tuesday, Egypt's central bank said the country's net international reserves dropped by more than $1.7 billion in January, continuing a steep slide that began because of continuing turmoil after the ouster Mr. Mubarak.

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