REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Americans working for pro-democracy groups in Egypt have been ordered to stand trial on criminal charges of receiving illicit funding, a move certain to further strain relations between Washington and Cairo’s ruling army generals.
The provocative decision by investigating judges comes as the U.S. has threatened to suspend $1.3 billion in annual aid to the Egypt’s military. It also highlights the widening divide between Washington and one of its closest allies at a time of sweeping political upheaval across North Africa and the Middle East.
The Associated Press reported that judges have ordered that 43 people -- 19 of them American -- be prosecuted for allegedly violating laws governing funding for nongovernmental organizations working in Egypt. One of them is believed to be Sam LaHood, the Egyptian director of Washington-based International Republican Institute and son of U.S. transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The younger Lahood and other Americans working for the IRI sought haven last month at the U.S. embassy amid fears they might be arrested following a travel ban placed upon them. Employees at two other U.S. based groups -- Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute -- are also under investigation.
The judges’ ruling came a day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt of possible consequences if the matter was not resolved.
"We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt. We do not want that," Clinton told reporters in Munich where she had met Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr.
"We have worked very hard the last year to put in place financial assistance and other support for the economic and political reforms that are occurring in Egypt and we will have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances."
Egypt’s military leaders, like deposed President Hosni Mubarak before them, have long been suspicious of pro-democracy groups working in a country that even after last year’s revolution and the election of a new parliament remains a police state. The army has suggested that non-governmental organizations, many of which they describe as “foreign hands, have instigated protests and political unrest.
Such characterization, analysts and activists say, resonate in an Egypt that is increasingly wary of outside intervention. It also has provided the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces with a foil to blame for the country’s deep economic and social problems.
The IRI and other American groups say they have been working to help Egypt conduct free elections and move the country toward a transparent democracy. Some Egyptian activist groups, including the April 6th Movement, have been meeting with U.S.-based organizations since before the revolution that overthrew Mubarak one year ago.
The IRI “does not provide monetary or material support to Egyptian political parties or civic groups,” according to a statement on its website. “IRI’s work with Egyptian civil society supports nonpartisan voter education and civic engagement with the goal of enhancing democratic participation and does not interfere with or influence the outcome of elections.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr said Saturday: "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."
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Sam LaHood, believed to be one of the Americans ordered held for trial in Egypt, watches as his father, Ray, is sworn in as U.S. Transportation secretary in Washington in 2009. Credit: U.S. Transportation Department