Egyptian state media has announced that the judiciary will go ahead with the trial of 43 democracy advocates, including 19 Americans, in the case of allegedly illegal funding of foreign non-government organizations.
The announcement by Egyptian state media that the case against foreign and Egyptian democracy advocates, including 19 Americans, will go to trial on February 26 is raising already high tensions between Egypt and the U.S.
The Americans accused in the case have officially been barred from leaving the country. Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, who is Egypt director of the International Republican Institute, is among those charged. Several defendants have taken refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
Egyptian state security forces raided the offices of several international pro-democracy NGOs in December, seizing computers and closing down their offices.
Speaking on Thursday before a U.S. congressional committee, Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, strongly criticized Egyptian authorities, saying those charged have been denied basic legal rights under Egyptian law. The IRI chief said the current NGO dispute should be resolved soon.
"Egypt has chosen to make the NGO issue the central concern in America, Europe and elsewhere. And the longer this issue goes on, the more difficult it becomes to unravel, and the more it poisons any new partnership we might be able to form with Cairo," he said.
The case has prompted intense media scrutiny in both the U.S. and Egypt, heightening tensions between the two long-time allies. Egypt's International Cooperation Minister, Faiza Abou Nega, has drummed up support for the case in the Egyptian press, for what analysts speculate are political motivations.
Several U.S. members of Congress have urged the Obama administration to cut foreign aid to Egypt over the case. Several prominent members of Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood have in turn called on Egypt to re-examine its 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty with Israel if that aid is cut.
Joint Chiefs of Staff head General John Dempsey met with Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi this past week to discuss the case. Senator John McCain of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is also due in Cairo in several days to meet top Egyptian officials.
Veteran Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem says that there is a political dimension to the case, and that it has serious economic implications for Egypt. He argues that the U.S. will probably issue a waiver to avoid cutting the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, but believes there will be a freeze in other international aid to the country:
"There will be no investments or loans coming into the country. This is the perfect way to isolate Egypt from the international community. I am shocked at statements made by Fayza Abou Nega who is saying that the attack on her coming from the States is a badge on her chest and that she is negotiating loans, when this is a lie. This is one of the worst things happening in the country now since the revolution began," he said.
Egyptian officials say privately that the country's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is furious about the judiciary case, but are extremely reluctant to interfere.