The US demanded “clarification” on Sunday over Cairo’s apparent plans to put dozens of pro-democracy activists, including 19 Americans, on trial over charges of illegal funding of non-governmental organizations (NGO).
US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was “deeply concerned” over the developments, which threatened to further strain ties with Egypt’s post-Arab Spring military rulers.
A top official at Freedom House, one of the groups targeted, called Egypt’s handling of the matter “a disaster.”
A judicial source in Cairo said 44 people, including Egyptians, would be tried over alleged illegal funding of aid groups, a day after the US said it would review aid to Egypt, US$1.3 billion last year, over the crackdown.
“We have seen media reports that judicial officials in Egypt intend to forward a number of cases involving US-funded NGOs to the Cairo criminal court,” Nuland told reporters traveling with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from the government of Egypt.”
The offices of Freedom House and the International Republican Institute were among 17 local and international NGOs raided in December by Egyptian authorities as part of a probe into alleged illegal funding.
The aid workers are accused of “setting up branches of international organizations in Egypt without a license from the Egyptian government” and of “receiving illegal foreign funding.”
A travel ban on all the NGO workers who were detained remains in place.
The decision to try the foreign workers comes as Egypt remains beset by unrest sparked by the perceived failure of its military rulers and police to prevent soccer-linked violence following a match in the northern city of Port Said on Wednesday last week that left 74 people dead.
The decision to forward the NGO workers’ cases for trial drew condemnation from US groups with staff in Egypt and from Germany’s government.
“The Egyptian military’s handling of this issue has been a disaster,” Freedom House Middle East and North Africa Program Director Charles Dunne said.
“This represents another escalation by the Egyptian government in its war on civil society — and it’s not just the US organizations, it’s the Egyptian organizations,” he said. “I find it astounding that they would do this while you still have a delegation of Egyptian general officers here in the United States to talk to the Congress and the administration about continued US military funding.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle slammed Egypt’s decision.
“It is unacceptable to harm organizations that have a real international mission which they take on seriously,” he told ARD TV, according to an early release transcript. “We shall act, in the framework of our foreign policy toward Egypt, in such a way as to ensure that political organizations that have a worldwide reputation are allowed to continue working as they have done.”
Egypt’s ruling military council, which took power after an uprising toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak last spring, has accused foreign groups of funding street protests against them.
The move will further strain US-Egypt ties after last year’s raid, during which Cairo prosecutors confiscated computers and paperwork from NGO offices.