Egypt's military-backed prime minister said today his country will not halt its crackdown on foreign-funded nonprofit groups despite what he called threats by Western and Arab countries to cut off aid, further deepening a bitter dispute that has strained ties with the United States.
Kamal el-Ganzouri also compared the current international pressure and the sharp decline in economic and social conditions in Egypt to the country's disastrous defeat to Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, and for the first time accused Arab countries of not making good on pledges of aid to Egypt.
Egypt's campaign against pro-democracy and rights groups began late last year with raid by security forces on the organizations' offices. On Sunday, Egyptian investigative judges referred 16 Americans and 27 others to trial on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.
That immediately drew a sharp rebuke from Washington, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warning that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of some $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt. Some US legislators even said every aspect of the relationship with Egypt must be examined following the crackdown.
With the standoff deepening, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, is to travel to Egypt this week for talks with military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Dempsey's spokesman, Col. Dave Lapan, said Wednesday the trip has long been planned, but that the nonprofit spat will come up if it hasn't been resolved. He said Dempsey would talk with Egypt's leaders about "choices and consequences," but declined to elaborate.
Despite the warnings from Washington, el-Ganzouri struck a defiant tone Wednesday, telling reporters he was "saddened" by the pressure Egypt was facing but insisting authorities "can't back down or won't change course because of some aid."
"Egypt used its legal right to face some violations by civil groups," he said. "The lofty judiciary moved and discussed and investigated the case. ... The West then turned against us because Egypt exercised its rights."
El-Ganzouri also charged that aid pledged by Arab states has also stalled since the dispute began. He said he met in early December with Arab ambassadors "who promised that Egypt will receive a lot of money," but two months later "none of these promises have come through."
He hinted that the US and Arab allies are withholding aid money because Egypt has adopted more independent policies since the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Egypt's net international reserves were down 50 percent year-on-year by the end of December as the country's economy is reeling from the overall effect of the uprising and the turmoil that followed. The government is discussing with the International Monetary Fund a $3.2 billion loan.
In an attempt to rally public support, el-Ganzouri appealed to nationalist sentiment and urged Egyptians to unite in the of face tough times ahead. He argued that the current conditions in Egypt are worse than after the country's crushing military defeat in 1967 when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
"What we are seeing now is worse than after the 1967 defeat, which was a military one," he said. "What is happening is a call to defeat the whole people, not only a military defeat. If we unite, we will get through this."
El-Ganzouri also warned that Egypt was the backbone of the Middle East, a region in flux at the moment, and that "if it (Egypt) falls, the whole region will follow."
"Neither the West, nor the Arab brothers are aware of this," he said.
El-Ganzouri's comments appeared to be aimed at silencing critics. Local civil groups say the campaign on foreign-funded nonprofit groups is in preparation for a harsh crackdown on local rights groups who have been documenting and lobbying against the military rulers since they took office last year.
London-based Amnesty International called on Egyptian authorities is using "repressive" Mubarak-era laws that have been criticized by UN bodies for years.
The military rulers charge that the foreign groups fund and support anti-government protests. The military claims that "foreign hands" are behind the opposition to their rule. They frequently depict the protesters as receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.
On Wednesday, Egyptian judges said the evidence collected in the case against 16 Americans referred to court for their alleged involvement in banned political activity through nonprofit groups include maps, cash and videos taken of churches and military facilities. Among the Americans referred to court is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Ashraf el-Ashmawi, one of the judges investigating the case, said authorities are investigating other groups.
In reference to the already named groups, he said: "Their activities have nothing to do with human rights."