Visiting US congressmen predict quick resolution of NGO row

Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 21 Feb 2012

The US congressional delegation headed by John McCain downplays the seriousness of brewing Egypt-US tensions over foreign-funded NGOs, expresses hope for speedy resolution of crisis

John McCain
U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks at the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo, Egypt (photo: AP)

A visiting US congressional delegation in Cairo on Monday expressed hope that current tensions between Cairo and Washington over the referral of six US citizens to an Egyptian court on charges of interfering in Egypt's internal affairs through the operation of unlicensed NGOs would soon be resolved – far from US threats to reduce or cancel economic and/or military assistance to Egypt.

Headed by Republican Congressman John McCain, the delegation met with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling military council, government officials and MPs. The two sides discussed, as McCain said at a subsequent press conference with other delegation members, the wider scope of bilateral Egyptian-American relations – not just the disputed NGOs file.

The visit by the five-member delegation – which, along with McCain included three other Republican senators and a Democrat – had been scheduled prior to the referral of six US citizens, along with other Egyptian, Arab and European nationals, to a criminal court three weeks ago. All of them face charges of violating Egyptian laws regulating the operation of local and foreign NGOs in Egypt.

Refraining from making any provocative statements, McCain told reporters in Cairo on Monday afternoon, following talks with Egyptian officials, that the delegation was "not trying to negotiate" an exit for the six detained US citizens. He added that the matter was being left "to the government of Egypt and the US embassy in Egypt and Egypt's embassy in the US."

McCain added, however, that "of course the issue of the NGOs came up" in discussions with his Egyptian interlocutors.

The Republican senator went on to express confidence that "people of good faith" in Egypt would "find an acceptable solution" to the current impasse.

The congressional delegation insisted that all charges of interference in Egyptian affairs levelled against the US nationals had no basis in fact. Delegation members also stressed that the US was not threatening to cut its annual economic or military assistance to Egypt, which, they said, represented a crucial part of the longstanding "strategic partnership" between Cairo and Washington.

Meanwhile, McCain and other delegation members said they had been comforted by what they heard from the Muslim Brotherhood's representatives in parliament regarding the group's determination to fix the current Mubarak-era NGOs law with the aim of making it friendlier to civil society.

Senator Lindsey Graham said that, while he was "apprehensive" about the Muslim Brotherhood's sweeping victories in Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls, he came out of talks with Brotherhood representatives on Monday feeling confident that Egypt and the US would remain strategic partners under any new government.

"The Muslim Brotherhood said they were committed to changing the [NGOs] law; they told us it was a priority to write a new law," Graham said. He added that the US delegation was confident that the issue of the NGOs and detained US nationals "would be solved sooner rather than later."

While no timeframe was offered by any of the five US congressmen on when the matter might be resolved, an informed Egyptian official estimated that the matter might find resolution "within a few weeks."

The trial of the civil society workers is slated to begin on 26 February. The US and other nationals, for their part, are planning to plead not guilty. The three concerned US NGOs – Freedom House and two research institutes affiliated with the US Democratic and Republican parties – are expected to lodge appeals for the licenses that they had failed to obtain since they began operating in Egypt in 2005 with the tacit consent of the Mubarak regime.

If the desired licenses are granted during the litigation process, the NGOs in question would likely be acquitted of any wrongdoing, according to one judicial official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, McCain and other visiting US senators expressed their confidence in the Egyptian armed forces, with which, they said, the US was keen to continue cooperating.

Members of the US congressional delegation went on to describe the Egyptian army as the reason why Egypt wasn't facing Syria's fate. McCain also praised the ruling military council's stated commitment to handing over executive authority to an elected civil administration following upcoming presidential polls.

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