WASHINGTON: The White House said on Monday that an Egyptian crackdown on pro-democracy non-governmental groups that has enmeshed a number of US citizens could threaten the country’s $1.3 billion in annual US military aid.
Nineteen Americans are among 44 foreign and Egyptian activists whose cases have been referred to criminal court by the country’s army-backed government. A number of the US citizens involved have sought refuge in the American embassy.
"These actions could have consequences for our relationship and for our assistance programs," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
The row has strained ties between Cairo and Washington, which backed the overthrow last year of Egypt’s longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, upon whom it relied for decades to uphold a peace treaty with Israel vital to US strategy in the Middle East.
"We continue to communicate at all levels with the Egyptian government our grave concerns regarding the crackdown against NGOs," Carney told a news briefing, adding that the individuals "have done nothing wrong. Their only assignment is to support Egypt in its transition to democracy."
Egyptian authorities say the NGOs broke the law by accepting foreign funds without government approval.
Several US citizens and others involved in the probe have been barred from leaving Egypt. They include Sam LaHood, the country director of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"Many of these groups have worked in Egypt for several years, and so their activities are not new. Moreover, they also served as observers for the recent parliamentary elections at the request of the government of Egypt," Carney said.
White House hopeful Newt Gingrich likened Cairo’s apparent plans to put 19 Americans on trial over charges of illegal funding of aid groups to the Iran hostage crisis.
"The Obama administration is appeasing the elements that oppose us," Gingrich said, deriding the Arab Spring for bringing "radical" Islamists to power in Egypt after the overthrow of US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak.
"In Egypt you now have Americans being held hostage," told a rally in Minneapolis ahead of Republican nominating caucuses there Tuesday.
"This is intolerable. This resembles Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis."
Some 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after the US embassy in Tehran was stormed and occupied during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The crisis undermined the presidency of Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and the hostages were not released until moments after President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, was inaugurated.
Gingrich, who often compares himself on the campaign trail to Reagan, said Obama’s foreign policy mirrored Carter’s "weakness."
"If I were president, the message to the Egyptian government this evening would be quiet, firm, unequivocal; and I suspect that by sometime tomorrow morning all the hostages would be on an airplane coming home," the former House speaker said.
"This is not the way an ally should be treated. I believe that we should re-evaluate the status of our bilateral relationship during this transition period," Democratic Senator Ben Cardin said in a statement on Monday.
Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was "totally unacceptable" for Egypt to prosecute the activists on charges of illegal funding of aid groups.
"These organizations, which have supported Egyptian citizens’ own struggle for representative democracy and freedom, have been targeted by those in the holdover regime who fear change," he said.