Official: 'Intense' talks in Egypt over NGO standoff

Mohamed Amr, Egypt's foreign minister, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have met over the past three days.

Story highlights

  • More than a dozen Americans face charges as part of a crackdown on NGOs
  • In December, Egyptian authorities carried out 17 raids on offices of 10 groups
  • Among the Americans is the son of the U.S. secretary of transportation
The United States is having "intense discussions" with the Egyptian government to resolve the case of 16 American overseas aid workers facing charges as part of a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, a senior administration official said Saturday.
"As we have been for some weeks, we are involved with intense discussions with the government of Egypt to try to resolve this situation with the NGOs in the coming days," the official told reporters.
The Americans are among 43 people accused in a case involving foreign funding. They are scheduled to appear in a criminal court Sunday, a spokesman for the Egyptian general prosecutor's office said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr in the past three days in London and Tunis, and other senior administration officials have also been intensely involved, the official said.
The official would not speak about details of the discussions so as not to jeopardize the delicate diplomacy under way to resolve the issue.
In December, Egyptian authorities carried out 17 raids on the offices of 10 organizations, including the U.S.-based Freedom House, National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. They seized property and prevented some staff from leaving the country.
Among the Americans is Sam LaHood, director of Egypt operations for the International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Earlier this month, the United States was presented with a 24-page document from an Egyptian court laying out charges against U.S. and other international democracy-building groups. The charges include operating in Egypt without being officially registered and receiving foreign funding.
The State Department sent lawyers to Egypt to pore over the document.
Of the Americans charged, fewer than half are still in Egypt. Those who are still in the country have been invited to move into the U.S. Embassy compound. The Egyptian government has not asked for those Americans at the embassy to be turned over or to turn themselves in.
The United States has maintained that despite the charges, it does not consider the case truly a judicial one, but a matter between the two governments about the role of NGOs in Egypt.
The showdown has strained ties between the countries as the Obama administration has sought to embrace the new government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Members of Congress say Egypt's action could mean the end of $1.3 billion in U.S. aid. In a letter to Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, 41 members urged the administration to withhold aid to Egypt until the country's leadership allows the offices of those organizations to reopen and returns seized property.
Egypt's democracy is fragile in the wake of the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, and the nation can ill afford a cut in funding.
Egyptian officials have blamed continuing unrest in their country on foreign interference they attribute, in part, to the organizations.
Ashraf El-Ashmawi and Sameh Abu Zeid, the two judges handling the cases, said the charges could lead to five-year prison sentences.
"These organizations conducted unlicensed and illegal activities without the knowledge of the Egyptian government," said El-Ashmawi. "Documents confiscated during the raids on the NGOs offices confirm illegal foreign funding."
Documents also showed that foreign workers employed by the NGOs deliberately had tourist -- not work -- visas, and did not pay taxes, officials contend.
The International Republican Institute describes itself on its website as a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that "advances freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, democratic governance and the rule of law."
Freedom House's website says it "supports democratic change, monitors freedom and advocates for democracy and human rights around the world," supporting nonviolent civic initiatives in societies where freedom is threatened. The National Democratic Institute says it works to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide "through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government."
The groups have denied wrongdoing.
The International Republican Institute has said the prosecution is a "politically motivated assault" that "reflects escalating attacks against international and Egyptian democracy organizations." While Egypt may call the situation "a legitimate judicial process ... the continued assault on American, German and Egyptian civil society is not a 'legitimate judicial process,'" the group said.
The National Democratic Institute said it applied for registration in 2005 through the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "and has fulfilled all of the registration requirements for the past six years, including a number of updates provided in January." The group said it will "vigorously defend the accused personnel."