Woman behind Egypt's NGO pursuit a Mubarak holdover

Egyptian Planning and International Cooperation Minister Fayza Aboul Naga speaks at a U.S.-Egypt Business Council luncheon ahead of the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., April 14, 2011. AFP/Getty

CAIRO -- The architect of Egypt's crackdown on U.S.-funded pro-democracy organizations is a holdover from the cabinet of former president Hosni Mubarak who has tried for years to stymie the groups' activities.

Faiza Abou el-Naga, the minister who coordinates international aid and long the most powerful woman in the Egyptian government, has survived a series of cabinet purges and weathered the groundswell of anger toward remnants of Mubarak's regime. But her intensifying campaign against the civil society groups offers clear proof, her critics say, that some elements of the old guard remain entrenched and are trying to block the rise of new political leadership in the country.

"Mubarak is still ruling in some ways and is still blocking the emergence of a new regime in Egypt," said Abdullah al-Ashaal, a former deputy foreign minister. "Faiza Abou el-Naga is one of the tools in that."

This week, 43 employees of nongovernmental organizations, including 19 Americans, were charged as part of an investigation of civil society groups. They included the country directors of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), the latter of which is led in Cairo by the son of the U.S. transportation secretary.

Abou el-Naga, the public face of the inquiry since it was launched by her ministry last year, has defended the probe, which has jeopardized up to $1.5 billion in U.S. aid. She insists that the Egyptian government has a right to expel unlicensed foreign organizations that she says could further destabilize a country reeling from the aftershocks of a revolution. Speaking to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, she said the government was not trying to stifle civil society, but rather to enforce policies that protect Egypt's sovereignty.

Senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose political party won the most seats in parliament, have endorsed the crackdown. Egypt's ruling generals also appear to be backing it.

But Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday called the probe a "dangerous game that risks damaging both Egypt's democratic prospects and the U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relationship." In a further sign of strained relations, a delegation of Egyptian military officials cut short its trip to Washington this week, canceling meetings on Capitol Hill.

U.S. officials who backed democratic reform in Mubarak's Egypt over the past decade had been hopeful that his fall would spell the end of Abou el-Naga's career and the rigid restrictions the regime placed on American aid earmarked for pro-democracy programs. U.S. trainers and funding would be sorely needed and welcome in the new Egypt, they reasoned, as nascent political parties and those that had been oppressed by the autocratic government geared up for the country's first free elections.

"When the regime changed, we all thought, Faiza will be gone," said a senior U.S. official who worked in Egypt, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be interviewed. "Man, were we wrong. She's more powerful than ever."

While Abou el-Naga, 59, kept a relatively low profile during Mubarak's reign, she cultivated strong relationships with the generals who now lead the country. They have often echoed her complaints about the destabilizing influence of foreigners. Others point to the decade she has spent channeling foreign aid in the country and her keen political skills as reasons for her continued influence.

A long career

Egypt's crackdown on nongovernmental organizations has startled U.S. lawmakers, who have threatened to cut off all aid to the country, including the roughly $1.3 billion a year in military aid and about $250 million annually in bilateral aid that is funneled through Abou el-Naga's Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. Why, many in Washington and Cairo wonder, would the ruling generals risk losing their biggest benefactor at a time when Egypt's reserves are running dangerously low, security forces are struggling to contain unrest and the tourism industry is anemic?

The answer, to a large extent, critics and supporters say, is Abou el-Naga.

The minister joined the Egyptian foreign service in the early 1970s -- one of the few women of her generation to do so. Former colleagues say she developed a reputation as a tireless, efficient worker with extraordinary political savvy. She served in Egypt's delegation to the United Nations in the 1990s and was later appointed as the country's envoy to the U.N. mission in Geneva.

When Mubarak picked her for the influential cabinet job in 2001, the state-owned newspaper al-Ahram called her a trailblazer who had "reached the highest echelons of her profession." She developed a close relationship with the president and his wife, Suzanne, former colleagues said, and quickly became one of the most powerful figures in the government, albeit one largely unseen in public.

"Her political strength comes from the fact that she is the one who receives foreign aid and rechannels foreign aid," said a former colleague who is supportive of her and the NGO probe. He agreed to be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity in order to speak bluntly. "She knows how to satisfy those in power."

Pushing back

After years of giving the Egyptian government substantial control over the way its share of U.S. aid was spent, Congress in 2004 demanded that some money earmarked for democracy-building activities be dispersed without moving through Abou el-Naga's ministry. Part of that money went to groups such as NDI and IRI, which trained and advised opposition figures.

Abou el-Naga and the country's intelligence agencies worried that the groups would empower government critics and pushed back against the change, said Egyptian activists and the U.S. official, who worked with her. Abou el-Naga was charming, articulate and strikingly elegant, but when the issue of NGO funding came up in meetings, she was uncompromising, the official said.

In February 2008, Abou el-Naga demanded that the United States stop funding four American and six Egyptian NGOs that had received money for democracy and governance work, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. It included one that had published a children's book called "Ali the Human Rights Activist." Thousands of copies were seized by security forces, the cable said.

When the Obama administration ramped up efforts to support civil society groups and political parties after last year's revolution, publicizing grants and holding workshops to help applicants apply for money, Abou el-Naga was furious.

"This is a situation that we cannot allow to go on," she told The Washington Post in an interview in June, noting that NDI and IRI were operating illegally because the Egyptian government had not granted them licenses. "I don't think in the United States or any countries you would accept that, you know, a foreign country would come and pour money on NGOs who are working illegally in a given country," she said.

Abou el-Naga did not respond to repeated requests for an interview in recent days.

Swaying the generals

Hossam Bahgat, a prominent human rights activist who is critical of Abou el-Naga and the restrictions she has enforced on NGOs, said the minister appears to have convinced the generals that the organizations have fueled protests and violence in recent months. "The generals are predisposed to believe these warnings about an international conspiracy to destabilize Egypt," Bahgat said. "They think they are facing the same fate as Mubarak."

U.S. officials fear that the narrative demonizing the United States and blaming foreigners for unrest is getting traction on the Egyptian street. Abou el-Naga's crackdown on pro-democracy groups has promoted that view.

"She's characterizing their work as violating Egyptian sovereignty and using that as a rallying cry," said the senior U.S. official. "That's turned into a weapon that appeals to the new leadership."

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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