Egyptians protest against US funding of NGOs

AP News
Posted: Mar 09, 2012 12:26 PM
Egyptians protest against US funding of NGOs

Protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo supporting the Egyptian military's crackdown on international pro-democracy groups clashed Friday with demonstrators rallying against the country's military leadership. Dozens of people were injured.

The issue of the pro-democracy groups has been at the center of one of the most divisive chapters of U.S.-Egyptian relations in recent decades.

Egyptian officials alleged the groups were using foreign funding to foment unrest in Egypt and were pursuing a legal case against dozens of defendants, including 16 Americans. Relations improved somewhat when Egypt allowed the American defendants to leave the country, effectively letting them avoid trial.

But the decision to lift the travel ban incited a backlash among many Egyptians who accused the country's ruling generals of bowing to U.S. pressure and meddling in what is supposed to be an independent judiciary.

The pro-military protest was led by Tawfiq Okasha, a staunch loyalist to the military leadership and a well-known TV presenter whose daily show has been banned for airing insults against pro-democracy activists. Okasha has repeatedly accused activists of receiving foreign funds to destabilize the country.

Witnesses said the clashes began when pro-military supporters began throwing rocks at anti-military protesters who were marching to the nearby Tahrir Square. Dozens wounded in the clashes, according to Egypt's Middle East News Agency.

The square was the focal point of demonstrations that eventually led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak a year ago and has been at the center of demonstrations against the military regime that assumed power in Mubarak's wake.

As people ran from the scene, Egyptian troops first tried to separate the stone-throwers but also threw rocks at the protesters, witnesses said.

The trial of the 16 Americans and 27 other defendants, including many Egyptians, fits into a broader campaign by Egypt's military rulers decrying what they call alleged foreign interference in the country since Mubarak's ouster.

At one point, American lawmakers were threatening to withhold $1.5 billion in aid as the NGO crisis intensified.

After weeks of high-level diplomatic talks between Cairo and Washington, Egypt lifted a travel ban last week that had been imposed on seven of the Americans on trial. The rest of the Americans were already outside the country when they were charged. All but one of the Americans then left Egypt. Egyptian authorities are still pursuing the case, however.

On Friday, the country's most powerful political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a statement that the courts were pressured to lift the travel ban. It also said that U.S. Senator John McCain tried to "distract" the Egyptian public by suggesting the Islamist group had a role in the departure of the Americans on trial.

McCain, who had met with the Brotherhood and members of the ruling military council to try and resolve the NGO dispute, wrote in a statement last week that the Islamist group had been important to helping efforts to resolve the spat.

Egypt's newly elected parliament said it will question the prime minister on March 11 over the lifting of the travel ban and whether the judges in the case came under political pressure.

The Brotherhood, which controls close to half of seats in parliament, has used the NGO row to renew calls for the current military-backed government to be sacked. The group wants to have a say in the selection of Cabinet ministers, but the ruling generals have hand-picked ministers since Mubarak's ouster last year.