Nineteen Americans will face criminal charges as part of a probe of the funding of pro-democracy groups, Egyptian officials announced Sunday, a provocative move that could deprive Egypt of crucial aid from the United States and upend one of Washington’s most important bilateral relationships.Is it me, or is anyone else bothered by the idea that the US would only consider acting when one of those threatened is politically connected?
The development added pressure to an already strained relationship between Egypt’s ruling generals and the Obama administration. The targets of the investigation include well-connected American groups, among them one led in Cairo by Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood reportedly was among those facing charges.
U.S. officials have sternly warned Cairo in recent days that the roughly $1.5 billion in aid earmarked for Egypt this year could be withheld if the politically charged investigation isn’t resolved quickly. But the tone of Sunday’s announcement suggested the Egyptian government is doubling down on what has become a high-stakes diplomatic dispute.
Fayza Abul Naga, Egypt’s minister for international cooperation, who is widely seen as the mastermind of the probe, said Sunday’s announcement should leave no doubt about the “government’s seriousness about discovering some of these groups’ plans to destabilize Egypt,” the state-owned newspaper al-Ahram reported on its Web site. The minister is among the few Mubarak loyalists who remain in the Egyptian cabinet.
Egypt has banned a number of non-government organizations’ workers, including LaHood, country director for the International Republican Institute, from leaving the country. Fearing they could be arrested, at least three of the Americans under investigation have sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy.
In response to pressure from Washington, Egyptian officials have said in recent days that they were unable to meddle in a judicial matter.
Local news reports said that in addition to the 19 Americans, 14 Egyptians, five Serbs, two Germans and three Arabs will stand trial. Egyptian officials have not indicated when formal charges will be handed down, and no trial dates have been set.
Pro-democracy groups have worked openly in Egypt for years, although the government has long refused to grant them operating licenses. The groups were buoyed last year when the government allowed them to monitor parliamentary election, the first time foreign monitors were allowed to observe polls in the country.
Hopes that Mubarak’s fall a year ago would be a boon for pro-democracy activists were dashed on Dec. 29 when Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs and seized files and computers. The current investigation, led by two investigative judges who were state prosecutors, is predicated on a 2002 law that bars organizations from accepting foreign funding if they are not licensed by the state.
U.S. officials have long sought to make assistance to Egypt conditional on democratic reforms. Experts on the country said the ruling generals might be assuming that the latest threats from Washington will prove to be empty. Similar warnings linking reforms and aid, dating back at least two administrations, have not been pressed.
The Egyptian government has long seen its yearly aid package from Washington as payback for signing a treaty with Israel in 1978.
The generals don’t “see this aid as being aid,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “They see it as their birthright. They see it as a bribe, and they feel they are undertaking their side of the pact.”
But LaHood’s involvement in the case could leave Washington little recourse, Hamid said. “Threatening to arrest and try the son of a top U.S. official is a red line, and they’ve crossed it,” he said.
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