Report: US bankrolled Morsi opponents

The State Department bankrolled key figures involved in protests to topple Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Al Jazeera reports, raising questions in Egypt about President Obama's repeated assertions that his administration isn't picking sides.

The funding was doled out before the protests occured, and the organizations involved have also supported groups that are close to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

Still, the report has reignited debate about U.S. involvement as the country considers an appeal for 43 non-governmental organization workers β€” including 16 Americans β€” sentenced to prison last month for allegedly receiving illegal foreign funding.

The State Department funneled tens of thousands of dollars through democracy-building programs to opposition figures moonlighting as non-governmental activists, according to documents obtained by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. Payments to politicians and political parties would violate both Egyptian and U.S. law.

The administration defended the assistance, saying it cannot control the political activities of people seeking to build democratic institutions in the country. The State Department has continued to give Egypt hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic aid under Morsi's government, over the objections of some in Congress.

β€œThe line between politics and activism is very blurred in this country,” David Linfield, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, told Al Jazeera.

The controversial payments reportedly include some $120,000 paid over four years by the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to an organization in Falls Church, Va., run by Col. Omar Afifi Soliman, a former member of Egypt's investigative police unit.

Soliman was sentenced in absentia last year for allegedly inciting violence against the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Cairo and has called for Egyptians to overthrow Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government and murder its supporters, according to an Al Jazeera review of court documents and his social media posts.

Another organization, the Egyptian Democratic Academy, has received tens of thousands of dollars from the NED, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the National Democratic Institute and other State Department-funded groups.

The academy's Esraa Abdel-Fatah has called for protesters to lay siege to mosques supporting Morsi, and is a supporter of the National Salvation Front led by opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei's, named the country's vice president after Morsi was toppled by the military.

The Hill has asked the State Department for comment and will update with any response.

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