CAIRO // Diplomats are working in behind-the-scenes negotiations for a solution that "saves face" for the Egyptian government in a dispute over several NGOs working illegally in Egypt, even as the trial of 43 civil society workers is set to begin today.
At stake in the case is Egypt's relationship with the United States, which for decades was one of its closest allies and most generous donors of economic and military aid.
US congressmen and government officials have threatened to cut off US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) of aid that was scheduled to be given to Egypt this year, claiming the case is politically charged and an attempt to suppress civic society organisations that have been critical of the military rulers controlling Egypt after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak last year.
At the centre of the investigation are the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, two US organisations connected to the Democratic and Republican parties. Both have worked in Egypt since before Mubarak's resignation, but were never granted an official licence.
"Everybody has to save face here," said Randa Fahmy Hudome, the acting chief executive officer of a new non-profit, lobbying group in Washington, the American Egyptian Strategic Alliance. The organisation is independently supported by Egyptian-Americans. "I am in touch quite frequently with Egyptian and US authorities at the highest levels and I believe they don't want this situation to become a major thorn in the side of US-Egypt relations."
One solution could be that the NGO workers are found guilty of operating illegally, but are not given a severe sentence, Ms Hudome said.
"The punishment could be that you are asked to leave the country and reapply," she said. Ms Hudome, whose organisation is attempting to play a role in improving relations between the two countries, pointed to the carefully worded remarks from US Senator John McCain, a Republican who visited Cairo last week, as a sign of the "conciliatory" tone that US officials were using to resolve the dispute.
In a press conference, Mr McCain said the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) was "working very diligently" to "resolve" the NGO issue. He described the prosecutions as a symptom of an outdated NGO law that served Mubarak's regime.
Even if criminal charges are resolved with less serious penalties than the maximum five-year imprisonment they could face, several of the US NGOs may not be able to work in Egypt for a period of time, Ms Hudome said.
The foreign NGOs are charged with operating in Egypt without a licence, while the Egyptian groups are charged with illegally receiving foreign funds for their operations.
But public comments from Egyptian officials and the two judges in the case, who gave a press conference on February 8, revealed accusations of a foreign conspiracy to influence the transition to democracy.
In comments published by the state-run Al Ahram newspaper, the Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga said "evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests."
Egyptian diplomats said the NGO case represented a new foreign policy stance of Egypt that seeks to end any treatment of the country seen as meddling or unequal.
"Financial aid is not a substitute for dignity," said Magda Zaki El Toulouny, the head of the Dialogue Among Civilisations department at the League of Arab States. "All of Egyptian foreign policy after the revolution is first about dignity."
This meant that Egypt would seek financial aid that recognised the country as a partner, not a servant of other foreign policies, she said.
Namira Negm, a visiting professor at the American University of Cairo who is on a sabbatical from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said while the judges were independent of politics, the prosecution could withhold evidence if it served the interests of the Scaf.
"The submission of evidence is in the hands of the government, not in the hands of judiciary," she said.
The NGO issue is a card that the government decided to play," Ms Negm said. "It is about the nature of US aid to Egypt and also building popularity for the Scaf because they are seen as cracking down on American influence."
Note: This story was altered on February 26. The American Egyptian Strategic Alliance is a lobbying group. The National incorrectly identified it as a non-profit group.