Middle East


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In Egypt, a female cabinet minister has emerged as the driving force behind a crackdown on U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups. Her name is Faiza Aboul Naga, and she's a holdover from Hosni Mubarak's regime. The minister's attacks have made her a hero to many Egyptians who believe she's defending their country's honor.

But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo, the threat she poses to billions of dollars in U.S. aid and international loans could make her power short-lived.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Faiza Aboul Naga, who is the minister of planning and international cooperation, has warned Egyptians time and again about the alleged danger foreigners pose to their country.

FAIZA ABOUL NAGA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At this press conference broadcast on state television, the 61-year-old claims American aid has been used to shape politics in Egypt since last year's revolution. She says that's something no country can allow. Such claims, which are now almost daily fodder here, are stoking widespread xenophobia. Many foreign aid workers say they can't understand why the woman who spent many years in the West has them in her sights. Les Campbell is the Middle East and North Africa director for the National Democratic Institute, one of the groups under attack.

LES CAMPBELL: I don't think anyone really knows the exact reason. There are as many conspiracy theories as there are Egyptians. I think probably the best explanation is that this is a distraction, perhaps, from the very serious problems that are facing the country.

NELSON: Those problems include a weakening economy, lack of services and rising crime. Hossam Bahgat heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He says Aboul Naga is using the NGO's issue to enhance the image of the interim government.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Her statements clearly show that she believes any work to promote democracy or to promote human rights for that matter is just a front for intelligence or espionage work.

NELSON: As a result, 43 people, including many Americans and other foreigners working for pro-democracy groups, were charged with operating illegally here. Those under investigation deny the charges. They say the training they've offered is standard fare for any developing democracy. Aboul Naga filed the initial complaint that sparked the crackdown on the NGOs, says the National Democratic Institute's Les Campbell.

CAMPBELL: So a dialogue with her sitting down explaining how we work, the demand for our work, the partnership with Egyptians would be very nice.

NELSON: But Aboul Naga has refused to meet with them. She also declined to be interviewed for this story. Her critics say she's pursuing an agenda first laid out by her friend and former boss Hosni Mubarak. He did not like being dependent on the West. Those involved in development here say that Aboul Naga has for years sought complete control of Western aid to Egypt. They say she wanted to make Egyptian groups and projects dependent on her. So the minister balked when American officials began funding pro-democracy and other programs directly to the tune of $160 million this past year.

But many here fear what Aboul Naga is doing will backfire in the long run. They say desperately needed grants and loans hang in the balance. Nora Soliman is spokeswoman for Egypt's Justice Party. She says Aboul Naga is fueling paranoia among Egyptians.

NORA SOLIMAN: I see her as pursuing a scorched earth policy for Egypt. You know, as Mubarak said before he left, apres moi le deluge. It will be chaos when I leave, and she is the source of a great deal of this chaos right now.

NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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