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USAID director in Egypt quits amid dispute centered on funding

Military opposes aid being given to activist groups

By Hamza Hendawi
Associated Press / August 12, 2011

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CAIRO - The USAID director in Egypt abruptly flew back to Washington yesterday after less than a year on the job, the first major casualty of a dispute between the two longtime allies over American funding for prodemocracy groups.

Jim Bever left his post the day after President Obama’s administration chastised Egypt’s leaders for stoking anti-American sentiment during the country’s rocky transition to democracy. In the rare public rebuke, the United States said it had noticed mounting attacks and criticism of US aid and motives.

A US Embassy statement said Bever will be “returning to Washington to take on new responsibilities and prepare for his next deployment.’’ It did not say why his tour was cut short.

The criticism of the United States is a sign that Egypt’s military rulers are growing anxious over foreign aid they fear could strengthen the liberal groups behind Egypt’s uprising at the expense of the military’s own vast power. Those youthful prodemocracy groups have grown more critical of the ruling generals lately over what they see as the slow pace of the transition away from authoritarian rule.

Bever has been at the center of a dispute over funding since March, when USAID - the American government organization that distributes international development aid - placed advertisements inviting nongovernmental groups in Egypt to apply for US funding. The ads attracted hundreds of applicants, who lined up outside USAID offices in a quiet suburb south of Cairo. Over the next few months, the American aid organization allocated millions of dollars to the groups.

This left the government seething. It insisted that the funding must go through official channels and not directly to the groups. Those restrictions applied during the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, whose government tightly controlled the process.

Last month, Major General Mohammed al-Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, gave a speech in Washington and criticized the United States for funding prodemocracy groups without submitting to Egyptian government supervision. He said it violated Egyptian laws for funding nongovernmental organizations.

“It is a matter of sovereignty,’’ he said.

Elizabeth Colton, spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Egypt, said yesterday that the United States is not interfering in Egypt’s politics.

“Egyptian groups that apply for and receive grants from the United States are engaged in activities that are politically neutral. No funds are provided to political parties,’’ she said.

Egyptian authorities opened a formal investigation this week into the funding issue, according to a judicial official involved in the process.

“A list of the likely beneficiaries of American funding has been compiled and we will investigate them one by one,’’ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was in its early stages.

Other generals on the ruling council have accused two key reform groups of following a “foreign agenda’’ and of receiving funding and training from abroad, claims that suggest plotting against the country with foreign help.

The activist groups April 6 and Kifaya, Arabic for “Enough,’’ fought back by lodging official complaints with the prosecutor’s office against Majore General Hassan el-Roweini, the ruling council member who made the accusations. April 6 is also demanding an apology.

Kifaya and April 6, which both called for Mubarak’s ouster years before the uprising, are credited with key roles in organizing the protests that toppled the president.

“This is all part of a military council plan to portray everyone protesting on the streets as paid by a foreign party,’’ said activist Mona Seif. “The council is trying to build a reputation for itself as the sole protector of the revolution and the ultimate source of patriotism.’’

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