Egypt says it is working “diligently” to resolve a bitter row with Washington over alleged illicit funding of NGOs for which American and other activists are due to stand trial, US Senator John McCain said on Monday.
Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Hussein “Tantawi has assured us they are working very diligently to resolve the NGO issue,” he told a news conference in Cairo during a visit aimed at defusing the row between the traditional allies.
“We approach the issue of the NGOs with some guarded optimism that this issue will be resolved fairly soon,” McCain said, adding that the visiting US delegation was “not making threats” but seeking “mutuality of interests.”
The delegation of five US senators, headed by McCain, has met Tantawi, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian lawmakers and businessmen.
The trial of 43 democracy activists, including 19 Americans, working for local and foreign NGOs operating in Egypt, is due to begin on Sunday, according to Egyptian judicial sources.
Washington has already hinted that the crackdown could harm its long-standing ties with the Egyptian government.
Apart from Americans, the accused include Serbs, Norwegians, Germans, Egyptians, Palestinians and Jordanians.
The defendants are charged with “establishing unlicenced chapters of international organisations and accepting foreign funding to finance these groups in a manner that breached the Egyptian state’s sovereignty,” the official MENA news agency reported.
Among the foreign NGOs targeted are the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the the International Republican Institute (IRI), the US International Centre for Journalists and Freedom House, all from the United States.
The most prominent suspect, Sam LaHood, is the son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and heads the Egyptian chapter of the IRI.
Fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who was accompanying McCain, said the crackdown on the NGOs accused of receiving illegal foreign aid was “politically motivated.”
“The person who brought this forward, I think, has an agenda that is not helpful,” Graham said, apparently referring to Fayza Abul Naga, the Egyptian international cooperation minister widely seen as the driving force behind the probe.
Abul Naga has told investigating judges that Washington funded the NGOs to cause “chaos” in Egypt.
“As an American, I’m offended,” Graham added.
“I’m on the board of IRI. I can assure you that it’s not the goal of this organisation or NDI or the American people to become spies or divide up a sovereign nation. That’s ridiculous.”
In the list of charges, the five NGOs are accused of receiving roughly $48 million (36.5 million euros) in illegal funds.
Prosecutors, backed by police, raided the groups’ offices in December, confiscating their equipment and sealing their doors.
Last week, 29 Egyptian rights groups slammed the NGO trials as politically motivated and accused the authorities of intentionally misleading the public to retain power.
US lawmakers from both parties have stepped up their warnings that Egypt’s crackdown will force a review of the $1.3 billion in US military aid to the longtime Middle Eastern ally if the crisis is not quickly resolved.