Washington Post: Egypt Moves Forward With Trial for Pro-democracy Workers

February 18, 2012

Egypt sets trial date for pro-democracy workers
The Washington Post

By Ernesto Londoño

CAIRO — The trial of 43 people charged with unlawfully conducting pro-democracy work will begin Feb. 26, state media reported Saturday, in the latest sign that the Egyptian government is disinclined to heed Washington’s warning that failure to drop the matter could lead to a cut off of U.S. aid.

The announcement of a trial date for the defendants, including at least 16 Americans, came as the state-run newspaper, al-Ahram, published several stories that portrayed the work of the non-government organizations as underhanded and a threat to Egypt’s sovereignty.

The al-Ahram report Saturday said the pro-democracy organizations ramped up efforts and spending after last year’s wintertime revolt. Their work “served specific political tendencies and countries’ agendas, despite the fact that they did not have a license to operate,” the newspaper reported.

The newspaper also said that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had asked Egyptian officials to let him take the seven Americans under indictment who remain in Cairo on his military plane during a recent visit to the country. All of the charged NGO workers are barred from leaving Egypt, though some were no longer working in Cairo, or happened to be away, when the travel ban was imposed.

Egyptian officials turned down Dempsey’s request, the newspaper said, and have continued to resist pressure from the Obama administration and Congress despite repeated warnings that Washington’s $1.5 billion in yearly aid could be cut.

A spokesman for Dempsey declined to comment on the report.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is due to arrive in Cairo on Sunday for meetings with Egyptian officials during which he is expected to press for a prompt resolution of the matter.

The organizations targeted in the probe include the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. The seven Americans who remain in Cairo work for IRI and NDI. McCain is the chairman of IRI.

NDI’s director for Middle East and North Africa programs, Les Campbell, said in an interview Saturday that the group intended to cooperate with Egyptian authorities but remains worried that the case is politically motivated.

“Everything we’ve done has been transparent and open,” he said. “There’s a Kafkaesque and Orwellian flavor to all of this. It is really trial by media, and here it is state-run media. It undermines the idea that this is a legal case. It is a political case.”

The highest-profile defendant in the case is IRI’s Egypt director, Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. LaHood and some of his colleagues have taken shelter at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. It is unclear whether IRI’s employees intend to appear for the trial. A spokeswoman for IRI declined to comment Saturday.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.