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Obama expresses concern over crackdown on democracy-building groups by Egypt’s ruling military

By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called the leader of Egypt’s ruling military council Friday to express U.S. concern about the government’s intensifying crackdown on democracy-building groups, a growing source of friction between the two longtime allies.

Three weeks after Egyptian security forces closed 17 human rights, legal aid and other independent groups, including several that are partly funded by the U.S. government, Obama stressed to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi that such civic organizations play a key role in democratic societies and “should be able to operate freely,” the White House said in a statement.

Outraged by the Dec. 29 raids, senior Obama administration officials said the next day that Egyptian leaders had promised to return the cash, computers and equipment they had seized from the groups and to allow them to resume operations.

Egyptian authorities have increased interrogations and harassment of the groups, however, and hinted that they may pursue criminal charges against them. Egyptian officials also proposed a law this week that would sharply tighten official control of nongovernmental groups. And confiscated equipment and cash have not been returned, according to the U.S. groups.

“The situation is only getting worse,” said Charles Dunne, head of Middle East programs for Freedom House, a Washington-based democracy-building and human-rights group that was operating in Egypt along with the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

All three, which get funding from Congress, saw their offices shuttered and equipment confiscated during the raids.

Egyptian officials have accused the 17 groups of improper meddling in politics and suggested that they paid protesters to denounce the government in demonstrations. Critics say the accusations are intended to deflect blame from the military’s troubled stewardship in the year since protests toppled Egypt’s longtime strongman, President Hosni Mubarak.

Washington considers Egypt key to regional stability, but the U.S. has lost influence over the last year as conservative Islamic parties and other previously banned groups have gained greater power in parliamentary elections.

The U.S. provides $1.3 billion in aid to the Egyptian military, but Congress passed legislation last year that says the money can only be released if the White House certifies Egypt is complying with democratic principles. That money may now be at risk.

The U.S-based groups say they are trying to help Egypt’s nongovernmental groups learn the workings of a democracy and insist that they don’t favor one political party over another. But accusations of foreign involvement have undermined their local support.

Leslie Campbell, Middle East director for the National Democratic Institute, said Egyptian authorities question the institute’s staff in Cairo every day, “and the tone of their investigations is becoming more aggressive, not less.”

He said authorities have not returned about $100,000 in cash or the computers and other equipment that were taken from institute offices during the raid.

Dunne, of Freedom House, said Egyptian judges are probing whether the groups were operating without government licenses and had brought in money from abroad “with the imputed motive of intending to destabilize and create chaos, all of which could lead to more serious charges down the road.”

The three U.S.-based groups say their Egyptian staff members fear the government’s denunciations in local media could provoke attacks on them.

“We’re concerned for their safety,” said Scott Masic of the International Republican Institute.

Some U.S. lawmakers also are upset by reports of the crackdown.

A bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Democrat Richard Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk, both of Illinois, warned Tantawi in a letter this week that “continued restriction of (the groups’) activities and harassment of international and Egyptian staff will be looked at with great concern, particularly in light of Egypt’s considerable assistance” from Congress.

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