Relations between Washington and Cairo plummeted further when Egypt’s military-controlled government announced that 19 Americans working for pro-democracy groups, including the son of a Cabinet official, would be ordered to stand trial on licensing and financial charges.
The provocative decision Sunday by investigating judges comes as the U.S. has threatened to suspend $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt’s military. It highlights the widening divide between Washington and one of its closest allies over democratic reforms at a time of sweeping political upheaval across North Africa and the Middle East.
State media reported judges have referred 43 people, including 19 Americans, to be prosecuted on charges of violating foreign funding laws for nongovernmental organizations working in Egypt. One of them is reported to be Sam LaHood, the Egypt director of the Washington-based International Republican Institute, or IRI, and son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The younger LaHood and other Americans working for IRI received haven last month at the U.S. Embassy amid fears they might be arrested after a travel ban was placed upon them. Employees at two other U.S.-based groups -- Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute -- are also under investigation. The charges reportedly carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.
“Nobody’s been arrested yet. Nobody’s been formally charged. But they’re under this cloud of suspicion and possible legal action and that’s very worrisome,” said Charles Dunne, Freedom House’s Washington-based director of Middle East and North Africa programs, who was in frequent contact Sunday with Freedom House staff in Cairo, all of whom are Egyptian nationals.
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 essentially remains a police state. The army has suggested that nongovernmental organizations, many of which it describes as “foreign hands,” have instigated political unrest and might be linked to intelligence agencies.
The judges’ ruling came a day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt of possible consequences if the matter was not resolved and the Americans weren’t immediately allowed to return home.
“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, Germany, 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,” she said.
On Sunday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from the government of Egypt.”
But the Egyptian government appeared adamant in pursuing the cases against the Americans and foreign nationals from Serbia and Germany.
Faiza Abu El-Naga, who administers foreign financing for the Cabinet, was quoted by Al Ahram state newspaper as saying, “The government will not hesitate to expose foreign schemes that threaten the stability of the homeland.”
The investigation into nongovernmental organizations resonates in an Egypt that is increasingly wary of outside intervention, especially from Washington, which it considers too close an ally to Israel. Analysts and activists say it also provides the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, with a diversion from the country’s deep economic and social problems. The need to calm domestic turmoil and counter perceptions that it is beholden to the West has made the Egyptian army bolder in defying Washington, even at the risk losing of U.S. aid.
In a statement Sunday, the IRI said the charges amounted to “escalating attacks” on democracy organizations and were “a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt’s growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era holdovers.”
The IRI and other American groups said their work has been to help Egypt with free elections and moving the country toward a transparent democracy. Some Egyptian activist groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement, have been meeting with U.S.-based organizations since before the revolution that overthrew Mubarak one year ago.
“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,” the group said on its website.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr said Sunday, “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.”
The U.S. and the Egyptian military have had a close 30-year relationship that is now in jeopardy over how to navigate Egypt’s emerging democracy. Islamist control of politics and of the new Egyptian parliament worries Washington over issues including civil liberties and foreign policy. But the democratic transparency espoused by the nongovernmental groups is regarded as a threat to a military that has enjoyed generations of little public accountability.
The military council has steadily pressured nongovernmental organizations working in Egypt. Last summer, council member Gen. Hassan Roweini said the April 6 movement and Egyptian activist groups were being manipulated by foreign meddling and were “igniting strife between the army and the people.”
The military quickly followed up with the statement: “SCAF calls on all sects of the people to remain cautious and not to be led by such a suspicious plot, which aims to undermine Egypt’s stability.”
In December, Egyptian police raided 17 offices of nongovernmental organizations, including IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, confiscating computers, money and files.
Cairo claimed that the groups had violated funding and licensing requirements for nonprofit entities. IRI and the National Democratic Institute were permitted to be observers during parliamentary elections. Dunne said the Egyptian government had accepted Freedom House’s registration paperwork three days before the office raids.
The funding regulations that led to the criminal probe were passed in the Mubarak era to prevent his opponents from receiving outside assistance. The National Democratic Institute worked in Egypt under the former president but, like many such organizations, was sensitive not to run afoul of Mubarak’s intelligence services.
In a statement Sunday, the National Democratic Institute said it had applied for registration through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005 and had fulfilled all of the registration requirements for the last six years.
“We are deeply concerned about this development,” the statement said.
Times staff writers Don Lee and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.