Egypt to Charge 19 Americans Over 'Illegal' NGO Funding

Egypt's military-led government says it will refer 43 people, including 19 U.S. citizens, to a criminal court over foreign financing of non-governmental organizations as it appears to be tightening the noose around the country's pro-democracy civil society.

The 43 suspects include 19 Americans, five Serbs, two Germans and three non-Egyptian Arab nationals, all of whom have been banned from leaving the country, Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported Sunday. The court is yet to decide a date for the trial.

Among the Americans charged is Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The government's move, which is part of a crackdown that began in late December when heavily armed security forces raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy and rights groups, has raised serious concerns in the United States, which gives over $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually.

"We have seen media reports that judicial officials in Egypt intend to forward a number of cases involving U.S.-funded NGOs to the Cairo criminal court," Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, told reporters in Ireland. "We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from the government of Egypt," he said.

Three U.S.-based organizations – the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House and International Republican Institute – were part of the raids, according to CNN. Police confiscated everything, including cell phones, documents, computers and office safes.

Human Rights Watch asked the Egyptian government to stop the criminal proceedings, saying it is "using a discredited Mubarak-era law to prosecute non-governmental groups while proposing even more restrictive legislation." The government should "stop using the old law, halt the criminal investigations and propose a law that respects international standards," Joe Stork, group's deputy Middle East director, said in a statement.

Egypt's pro-democracy, secular-minded people are questioning why the government did not raid organizations belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis that are widely known to be receiving foreign funding. Al-Masry Al-Youm quoted an anonymous government source as saying that no one "filed a complaint accusing them of accepting foreign funding." Other sources claimed that some of the Salafi groups were also investigated but nothing was found against them.

The government of Egypt is going ahead with the politically charged prosecutions despite giving assurances to the U.S. government last month that the issues would be resolved.

"We had been assured … that NGOs would be allowed to go back to business as usual and that their property would be returned," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said in January. "It is, frankly, unacceptable to us that that situation has not been returned to normal."

She also said some "Mubarak holdovers in the government" don't seem to understand how these organizations operate in a democratic society, and are "putting out lots of disinformation about them."

Egypt's military is increasingly becoming unpopular and risking the country's relations with the United States in Egypt's political transition after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak a year ago.