In a rapidly escalating dispute between allies, 43 people, including 19 Americans, are to face trial in Egypt for their work in promoting democracy. They include the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Sam LaHood was running the Cairo office of the International Republican Institute. The case against him and others has caused a furious reaction in Washington — with lawmakers threatening to hold up U.S. aid to Egypt.
Among those wanted by Egypt is Charles Dunne, Middle East director for Freedom House. Dunne lives in Washington but traveled to Egypt, where he is now considered a fugitive.
"It makes me feel strange," Dunne says, "because I love Egypt. I lived there for three years as the political-military officer in the U.S. Embassy, where I dealt with all of these generals who are now running the show."
Though he has not been formally notified of any charges, Dunne says Freedom House and other U.S. nongovernmental groups are being accused of operating illegal offices and accepting funds from abroad without permission.
He says Freedom House filled out all of its registration papers last year just days before its offices were raided — along with other human rights and democracy groups.
"The work that we are trying to do in Egypt is to help them do what they say they want to do, which is have a democratic transition to a civilian government," Dunne says. "And the Egyptian military is doing everything they can to shut that off and shut that down."
The U.S. State Department says the organizations being targeted have done nothing wrong and have cooperated with authorities for months now. The U.S. Embassy has invited any Americans still in Cairo and facing charges to stay at the embassy. Several have been there for more than a week.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is expressing grave concern about the impending trials and warning that U.S. aid to Egypt could be at risk.
"These actions can have consequences for our relationship, including with regard to our assistance program. This is not what we want. We need to resolve this issue now," Nuland said.
U.S. Aid Could Be Jeopardized
More than 40 members of Congress wrote to the head of Egypt's ruling military council last week, saying the crackdown on democracy groups will make it hard for them to defend current levels of assistance. Frank Wolf, a Republican congressman from Virginia, says the situation is getting out of hand.
"It's crazy. Here you have groups that have been operating in the country for years, who have applied to register to a country that we have given over $50 billion to, and now they want to try Americans," Wolf says. "It just doesn't make any sense at all."
And, he says, the Obama administration, by law, can't give Egypt aid unless Cairo meets certain conditions — including staying on the path to democracy.
"Based on what they are doing, there's no way the administration will be able to waive this, and I think you are going to have to suspend or cancel or cut the aid," Wolf says.
Wolf thinks President Obama ought to appoint a retired general — he has suggested Anthony Zinni, the former head of U.S. Central Command — to go to Cairo to explain that to Egypt's military council.