Doaa El-Bey examines the fallout from the diplomatic row over Egypt's clampdown on NGOs accused of receiving foreign funding
Egypt has named 26 February as the date for the trial of the 43 employees of NGOs -- including 19 Americans -- accused of receiving illegal foreign funding. The charge sheet against the foreign staff was sent last week to the US State Department.
"They [the Americans] must learn to accept the new Egypt and accept its judicial system. We have an independent judicial system," said Fadel, a taxi driver. Such attitudes are common among the public.
A case has been filed against Ann Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt, which will be reviewed on 6 March.
Popular anger has been reflected in repeated calls to reject US aid altogether. When cleric Mohamed Hassan launched a campaign to replace American aid with domestic funding he is reported to have received pledges of LE60 million within two days.
Nabil Fahmi, former Egyptian ambassador to the US, believes unilateral calls to refuse aid from Washington are an emotional response to the current crisis in relations and should not be pursued. He argues against abruptly ending the current foundation of relations which, he points out, encompass far more than financial aid.
During a visit to Egypt on Monday, Senator John McCain denied that NGOs are violating Egyptian sovereignty by meddling in the country's internal affairs. McCain was accompanied by five senior US lawmakers.
"Their work, which is done at the request of Egyptian democracy and civil society groups, seeks to support these Egyptian partners in pushing for the rule of law, free elections, a free media, respect for the human rights of all people and other core principles of a democratic society," he told a press conference held during his visit.
McCain said that though the nature of America's partnership with Egypt is changing a year after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak the two countries "must remain friends". McCain heads the board of directors of the International Republican Institute, one of the four US NGOs facing charges.
McCain's arrival in Egypt came hot on the heels of a visit by the head of US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. On his return, Dempsey told American television that he had spoken with Egypt's leaders about the 19 Americans being held and that they understood bilateral ties would remain strained until the issue is resolved.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has twice called Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's de facto ruler, to discuss the dispute. Tantawi, Panetta told reporters, indicated he would try to help.
Egyptian officials accuse pro-democracy organisations of receiving illegal foreign funding and operating without Egyptian government licences. Some of the groups have been operating in Egypt for more than a decade.
Fahmi stresses that many issues are at play in the case and all must be examined in order to understand what is going on. The current dispute could cause some temporary damage to ties between Washington and Cairo but it will not undermine relations completely, he says.
"There is no doubt that money was being paid to NGOs which were operating without government permission and outside the protocols agreed with the Egyptian government," says Fahmi. "This clearly reflects arrogance from the US side."
But he adds that post-revolution Egypt should be seeking to send a positive, not negative, message to NGOs, to the effect "it can facilitate and encourage their work provided they are transparent and accountable".
Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, objects to the manoeuvring inherent in the way the Egyptian authorities are dealing with the case. The NGOs are accused of working without licence, which is an entirely legal matter, he points out, and yet the state-owned press has endlessly harped on about political issues, accusing the NGOs of conspiring against the state, threatening national security and planning to divide Egypt.
Official policy regarding international NGOs has always been unclear, says Hassan. The government has allowed them to work in Egypt for fear of being accused of acting against human rights but it has neither denied them licences nor approved their applications.
One aim of attacking foreign NGOs, he says, is to intimidate local NGOs and undermine their work. "NGOs were treated badly under Mubarak. Under the military council, if anything, it is worse."
The entire row, says Fahmi, could have been avoided if a new law regulating NGOs had been submitted to parliament. Organisations would then have been able to freeze their activities until the law was ratified, at which point they could have resumed their work according to the new regulations.