CAIRO — Egyptian investigators filed criminal charges Sunday against at least 40 international civil society workers, reportedly including the son of a U.S. Cabinet secretary, in a controversial case that could cost the ruling generals millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Nineteen Americans are among the employees of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, referred to trial on charges of involvement in banned activities and receiving foreign funds illegally, according to state media. The other defendants are Egyptians, Serbs, Germans and Arabs from other countries, according to news reports. All of them face a travel ban preventing them from leaving Egypt.
The highly politicized case, which has drawn outrage from Egypt's once-close allies in Washington, shows that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Force is willing to risk Egypt's annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to assert sovereignty and win some points at home, analysts said.
"SCAF wants to demonstrate its anti-American credentials," said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who's written extensively on the Egyptian military.
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In Egypt, a cross-section of political elites have long resented the NGOs' work here on the belief that they were imposing Western values on a deeply conservative Arab Muslim nation.
For years, American and Egyptian nonprofit workers say, authorities have blocked them from full registration and smeared them in state media as foreign provocateurs trying to destabilize Egypt.
On Dec. 29, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 17 NGOs, including the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, Freedom House and National Democratic Institute. The groups receive U.S. government funding and were conducting candidate training and other activities related to the Egyptian parliamentary elections.
Helmy el Rawy, head of an Egyptian human rights NGO that was raided and which has one member under investigation, said the case was purely political, with evidence so deliberately weak that no court would accept it as sufficient. He interprets the generals' strategy as: Try the Americans, win public support; then acquit the Americans, mend relations with Washington.
"We all know these NGOs have been functioning in Egypt for five years, with or without licenses, and the Egyptian officials knew about it. Some even dealt with them," Rawy said.
Included in those reportedly referred Sunday for trial is Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and head of Egypt programming for the International Republican Institute.
An International Republican Institute official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the group only heard about the charges through Egyptian media and hadn't yet confirmed the development independently. By the time lawyers went to the high court to check late Sunday afternoon, the official said, the offices were closed.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that International Republican Institute employees were among a handful of suspects granted extraordinary permission to take refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo, ostensibly putting them out of risk of arrest.
On Sunday, the Egyptian state news service MENA reported that investigating judges ordered that "the suspects be brought to Cairo Criminal Court for trial." The International Republican Institute official said the group hadn't yet decided whether to cooperate with a proceeding it considers as part of a witch hunt against pro-democracy activism.
"This is bigger than IRI — the raids Dec. 29 involved 17 NGOs," the International Republican Institute official said. "This is really an assault on civil society groups in Egypt, writ large."
State news services quoted Fayza Aboul Naga, the minister of international cooperation and the alleged architect of the NGO crackdown, as saying the country wouldn't back down from its investigation of illegal foreign funding.
Critics say Aboul Naga's oft-repeated lines about Egypt's sovereignty mask her own personal ambitions to win the generals' confidence and secure her place in the political vacuum left by the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's regime last year.
"I'm sure she told the SCAF members that this will cause an uproar in Washington, but don't be the first to blink and we'll end up in a better position for dealing with the U.S.," prominent Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy said.
Springborg, the Naval Postgraduate School professor, said that the Egyptian military is guaranteed its aid through the end of this year, leaving months for the generals to smooth the ruffled feathers in Washington. In the meantime, he said, they'll appear to be taking a tough stance against American meddling, a rare rallying point for Egypt's disparate political factions.
Prominent Republican and Democratic senators have criticized the generals for failing to resolve the matter through diplomacy and warned in no uncertain terms that the future of military funding lay in doubt.
The government support for Aboul Naga's inflexible handling of the matter is also gaining notice. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., zeroed in on the Egyptian minister last week when he joined a string of politicians releasing terse statements that threaten Egypt's funding: "I strongly believe that no future U.S. government funds should be provided to or through that ministry as long as she is in charge."
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But just as the Egyptians shouldn't overplay their hand, Springborg said, neither should the Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or someone similarly high ranking might be able to defuse the situation by calling the head of the military council privately to make clear the U.S. influence over foreign donor states on whom Egypt is depending for help in stabilizing its wrecked economy, he said.
That, however, is about the only card left for the United States to play in the generals' game of brinkmanship.
"Have a private talk with the (generals) to say, 'Look, you're making it impossible for us to support you,'" Springborg advised. "A nod and a wink are what's needed now."
(McClatchy special correspondent Omnia Al Desoukie contributed.)
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