CAIRO (AP) - Egypt's ruling generals are playing a risky game of brinksmanship by cracking down on American nonprofit groups that promote democracy, threatening a relationship with Washington that has brought the military billions of dollars in aid over the past three decades.
The generals may be betting the U.S. cannot afford to cut relations with Egypt - a cornerstone of American Mideast policy. But the ruling military council may also fear it has much more than foreign aid to lose if it fully embraces a democratic transition that could bring civilian oversight of its substantial financial assets and curb its long-standing domination of politics.
Egypt on Sunday referred 19 Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and 24 other employees of pro-democracy nonprofit groups to trial before a criminal court on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country. The referral came one day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of American aid.
"I think we have to have every aspect of our relationship with Egypt examined until these people are removed from any indictment and allowed to leave or do whatever they need to do," Republican Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in Washington.
The depth of the tensions was evident when an Egyptian government delegation abruptly canceled meetings in Washington with U.S. lawmakers set for Monday and Tuesday.
"We understand that we have a real strategic interest in keeping good relations with the Egyptians. It's the biggest country in the Arab world," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut. "But on the other hand, we can't just sit back when Americans get charged and potentially incarcerated for what are trumped up charges, ridiculous," said Lieberman, who together with McCain spoke to reporters after a meeting with the Israeli foreign minister.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, admonished the Egyptians, calling their referral to trial a "slap in the face to Americans who have supported Egypt for decades and to Egyptian individuals and NGOs who have put their futures on the line for a more democratic Egypt."
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said that Cairo ignores at its own peril a provision he authored about U.S. aid to Egypt. The provision requires the Secretary of State to certify to Congress that Egypt is supporting the transition to civilian government by holding fair elections and establishing policies "to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law" before Cairo gets $1.3 billion in military aid this year.
"Unless they're following what we put in the amendment, there's no way they should be getting any money. Right now they're not following what we put in there," Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's foreign operations subcommittee, told reporters.
Egypt and the United States have been close allies for more than three decades. But Cairo's campaign against the pro-democracy groups could seriously damage relations with far-reaching ramifications in a region already shaken by the political realignments arising from Arab Spring revolts.
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, demanded that Egypt return all assets and funds seized in the raids of the NGOs, allow them to reopen their offices and end the investigations and prosecutions.
"The Egyptian government's actions cannot be taken lightly and warrant punitive actions against certain Egyptian officials, and consideration of a cutoff of U.S. assistance to Egypt," she said.
The substantial U.S. military aid to Egypt is linked to its adherence to an American-mediated 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Washington's closest Middle East ally. The preservation of that cold peace has long been a foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Besides the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, Egypt also receives about $250 million in economic aid every year.
In return, Egypt transformed itself since the 1970s from a one-time Soviet ally hostile to the West into an anchor of U.S. policy in the region, fighting Islamic militancy, mediating in the tortuous Arab-Israeli peace process and assuming a key role in the U.S.-led war against terror.
"The ruling military council is playing a game of high-stakes poker, believing that the U.S. cannot afford to cut its relations with Egypt," said Ziad A. Fahmy, a Middle East expert at Cornell University. "However, even more important than the annual $1.3 billion in U.S. aid is the potential threat of democratic civilian oversight over the Egyptian military budget."
The U.S.-Egypt dispute began last month with raids by Egyptian security forces on 17 offices of 10 advocacy groups, denounced by the U.S. and other countries. It also reinforced charges by Egyptian protesters and activists that the military rulers who took over a year ago from President Hosni Mubarak are perpetuating his regime's oppressive tactics.
"It is clear to all that this campaign ... aims to take revenge on groups that revealed violations by the military council since it took power," said a statement by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, a prominent Egyptian rights group.
The investigation into the work of the nonprofit groups is closely linked to the political turmoil that has engulfed the nation since Mubarak's ouster. The generals charge that the groups fund and support anti-government protests. They claim that "foreign hands" are behind the opposition to their rule and frequently charge that the protesters are receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.
The dispute between the military and the pro-reform groups has sharply polarized Egypt. And it has raised baffling questions about why the military rulers would risk so much just a few months before they plan to hold presidential elections and hand over power to an elected government at the end of a turbulent transition.
Much like their mentor Mubarak, the ruling generals have been deeply distrustful of the pro-democracy and human rights groups, which have energetically campaigned over much of the past year against the military's torture of detainees, the hauling of at least 12,000 civilians, many of whom protesters, before military tribunals and their perceived reluctance to dismantle the legacy of Mubarak's 29-year rule.
Some activists say they are preparing legal cases against the generals for the death of at least a 100 protesters since they took power and their human rights abuses. If such cases go to court, the generals could face charges similar to those for which Mubarak is on trial. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Authorities in Egypt have never been comfortable with nonprofit groups promoting rights and democracy operating in the country. That they are bound by law to register with authorities before they can operate and can only receive foreign funds through official channels have been the two main points of contention between the two sides.
London-based Amnesty International called on Egyptian authorities to drop the charges, saying they are based on "repressive" Mubarak-era laws that have been criticized by U.N. bodies for years.
"These international associations have become the latest scapegoats as the authorities desperately spin their story of foreign conspiracies," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North African Program.
Amnesty urged the newly elected parliament, dominated by Islamists, to shoot down a newly proposed civil society draft law proposed by the military-appointed government which seeks to tighten the noose around the work of pro-democracy groups, and maintains restrictions on foreign funding and political activities of such organizations.