Mohammed al-Law, File, Associated Press
CAIRO — Ignoring a U.S. threat to cut off aid, Egypt on Sunday referred 19 Americans and 24 other employees of nonprofit groups to trial before a criminal court on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.
Egypt's military rulers had already deeply strained ties with Washington with their crackdown on U.S.-funded groups promoting democracy and human rights and accused of stirring up violence in the aftermath of the uprising a year ago that ousted Hosni Mubarak. The decision to send 43 workers from the various groups to trials marks a sharp escalation in the dispute.
Egypt and the United States have been close allies for more than three decades, but the campaign against the organizations has angered Washington, and jeopardized the $1.5 billion in aid Egypt is set to receive from the U.S. this year.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of American aid. The Egyptian minister, Mohammed Amr, responded Sunday by saying the government cannot interfere in the work of the judiciary.
"We are doing our best to contain this but ... we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," Amr told reporters at a security conference in Munich, Germany. A few hours later, word of the referral to trials came.
The Egyptian investigation into the work of NGOs in the country is closely linked to the political turmoil that has engulfed the nation since the ouster of Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years.
Egypt's military rulers have been under fire by liberal and secular groups for bungling what was supposed to be a transition to democracy after Mubarak's ouster. The ruling generals who took power after the uprising, led by a man who was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, have tried to deflect the criticism by claiming "foreign hands" are behind protests against their rule and frequently depict the protesters as receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.
Those allegations have cost the youth activists that spearheaded Mubarak's ouster support among a wider public that is sensitive to allegations of foreign meddling and which sees a conspiracy to destabilize Egypt in nearly every move by a foreign nation.
Egypt has just been plunged into a new cycle of violence with 12 killed in four days of clashes. The clashes were sparked by anger at the authorities inability to prevent a riot after a soccer match last week left 74 people dead.
International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a remnant of the Mubarak regime who retained her post after his ouster, is leading the crackdown on nonprofit groups. On Sunday, she vowed to pursue the issue to the very end. The investigation into the funding issue, she claimed, has uncovered "plots aimed at striking at Egypt's stability."
Egyptian security officials said that among the Americans sent to trial is Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Five Serbs, two Germans and three non-Egyptian Arab nationals are also targeted.
All 43 have been banned from leaving the country. A date has yet to be set for the start of the trial.
"Governments have the right to regulate NGOs but not to micromanage them and impede their activities and decisions," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Sunday. He urged Egypt's newly elected parliament to pass a law guaranteeing the rights of civil society groups.
Sunday's decision to refer the 43 to trial raises questions about the Egyptian military's motive to allow the issue to escalate so much that the valuable $1.3 billion it gets annually be placed in jeopardy. Washington also is set to give Egypt $250 million in economic aid this year.
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