CAIRO: Egypt said Saturday the criminal trial of 44 NGO workers will start Feb. 26 in a politically charged case against foreign-funded pro-democracy groups that has badly shaken Cairo’s ties with Washington.
The trial represents an escalation in what has become the deepest crisis in US-Egypt relations in decades. American officials have threatened to cut $1.3 billion in aid over the spat, and high-level officials have flown in to seek a solution. Egyptian authorities have responded by blasting what they call US meddling in legal affairs.
The growing spat also shows the uncertain path Egypt’s military rulers are charting more than one year after a popular uprising pushed president Hosni Mubarak from power. During his nearly 30-year rule, the US tolerated Mubarak’s antidemocratic policies and continued to fund his government, knowing he’d uphold Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Now, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces regularly accuses "foreign hands" of backing continued protests against its rule, and the Islamist parties that control about two-thirds of the newly elected parliament have threatened to review the peace treaty with Israel.
The investigation into the pro-democracy and rights groups fits into the wider campaign against alleged foreign influence since Mubarak’s ouster.
The probe began in December, when armed security forces raided the offices of 10 nonprofit groups, shuttering their offices after carting off files and computers.
Egypt’s state news agency said Saturday the trial of 44 defendants in the case will begin Feb. 26. The report said 16 of the defendants are Egyptians and 19 are Americans, and the rest are Germans, Palestinians and Jordanians. The US State Department, however, has said there are only 16 Americans facing trial.
The Americans work for four US-based groups: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists.
Only seven of the Americans are in Egypt, and all have been barred from travel. Some have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo, including Sam LaHood, who heads IRI’s Egypt office and is the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Neither IRI nor the US Embassy responded to requests for comment.
The report said the defendants have been charged with founding and managing offices of international organizations without Egyptian licenses and with receiving foreign funding. The groups’ operations "infringe on Egyptian sovereignty," it said.
On Saturday, the Al-Ahram state-owned daily published a report it said was based on leaked investigation files. The report accused the organizations of operating outside of Egyptian law to "affect the political process and serve a limited number of political movements in a way that serves the interests of the funders."
It also said the organizations’ budgets grew dramatically after the anti-Mubarak uprising — implying a link to the continued unrest.
NDI and IRI say they have been trying to register for years, but have never received official approval — a tactic Mubarak’s regime used to maintain power over such organizations.
Les Campbell, Middle East and North Africa director for NDI, said the charges are bogus, but that NDI would cooperate with the legal process.
"It is primarily a political issue, so we still hope that it will be resolved at the political level," he said. "But as an organization, we’re prepared to move along through the system."
Campbell also acknowledged that his group became more active after Mubarak’s fall because of the unprecedented political activity in the country.
"Why wouldn’t our activities have increased in the period after the revolution?" he asked. "That is completely normal. There is nothing even remotely sinister about it."
Egyptian officials are forging ahead in spite of intense US efforts — and pressure — to end the crisis.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have urged top Egyptian officials to drop the investigation. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey did the same in a Cairo visit last week, and US Sen. John McCain will lead a Congressional delegation to Egypt in the coming days.
US officials have said the issue could block the delivery of Egypt’s annual aid package of $1.3 million in military assistance and $250 million in economic assistance. That aid is linked to Egypt’s adherence to its 1979 peace agreement with Israel, sparking fears that a failure to break the impasse could put the treaty in jeopardy, destabilizing the region.
That’s why administration officials are hesitant to push too hard. Ending aid to Egypt would also look bad one year after Egyptians calling for greater democracy forced Mubarak from power.
But Egyptian legal expert Nasser Amin said that taking the case to trial could provide a way out, because a judge could throw the case out, requiring neither side to back down.
"The case isn’t legally sound," he said. "There is no strong evidence, and any judge who looks at this case will see that it is more political than legal."