The Egyptian authorities have referred 19 Americans and two dozen others to face criminal trials, the state media reported Sunday. The move is part of a politically charged investigation into the foreign financing of nonprofit groups that has shaken the 30-year alliance between the United States and Egypt.
The referral flies in the face of increasingly urgent warnings to Egypt’s military rulers from the Obama administration and senior Congressional leaders that the investigation could jeopardize $1.5 billion in American aid expected this year.
Before the money can be released, Congress requires that the State Department certify that Egypt is making progress toward democracy, including respecting the independence of civil groups. The administration and State Department officials have said the investigation represents a failure to meet those criteria.
Among the Americans referred to trial is Sam LaHood, the leader in Egypt of the International Republican Institute. He is the son of Ray LaHood, the United States secretary of transportation and a former Republican congressman from Illinois.
The International Republican Institute and its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute, are independent nonprofit groups, with close ties to the Congressional leadership, that promote democracy in countries around the world.
The two groups are the highest-profile targets of the investigation, which has been accompanied by a drumbeat of anti-American language from Egypt’s military-led government suggesting that Washington has been paying to stir up unrest in the Egyptian streets.
Two other American groups backed in part by American government money, Freedom House and a journalism institute, are also part of the investigation, along with several Egyptian organizations that rely on foreign financing.
The 43 people referred to trial have been charged with violating restrictions on the foreign financing of nonprofit groups.
The prosecution relies on laws left over from the authoritarian government of former President Hosni Mubarak that have in effect kept virtually every independent civil organization here in a kind of legal twilight, its workers subject to arrest at any time.
The laws require all civil groups to register for a government license that, in practice, is almost never granted to a genuinely independent group that might criticize the government or its policies. Given the legal and political risks, the laws have the added effect of virtually eliminating domestic donations to support such groups.
The laws also require that any foreign financing to Egyptian nonprofit groups flow only through a government ministry and only to licensed groups. Because of the paucity of domestic financing, foreign funds, mainly from the United States and Europe, have been the mainstay of human rights groups here.
Although neither the National Democratic Institute nor the National Republican Institute has received a license from the Egyptian government, both were formally invited here as official observers of the recent parliamentary elections.
Both groups are barred by United States law from partisan activity in the countries where they operate. In Latin America, the groups have sometimes been accused of violating those rules, collaborating with American intelligence agencies or otherwise attempting to influence internal politics.
In Egypt, they have operated for years under the constant surveillance of the secret police and have been pressured by the American government not to upset the alliance with Egypt. Their work here has been mainly to teach the nonpartisan nuts and bolts of politics, which they have done for groups across the political spectrum.
Egyptian activists said the staffs of the two groups seemed to fear any association with groups that actively opposed either the Mr. Mubarak’s government or the military council that has ruled the country since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.
Under Mr. Mubarak, the government tolerated some independent rights groups, including the National Democratic Institute. The group’s staff members said they kept the Egyptian intelligence services well informed of their activities in order to avoid conflict or arrest. But they remained legally vulnerable.
Many groups assumed that after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, the generals who took power would repeal the restrictions on civil society groups as part of the new era of freedom, just as the generals have revoked restrictions on independent labor unions and political parties. Instead, the military-led government has applied the law with new force.
In December, the Egyptian riot police raided the offices of as many as nine nonprofit groups, including the four American organizations, as part of its investigation into foreign financing. The police confiscated money, computers and files and shut down the groups’ operations. A month later, the authorities imposed a travel ban on at least six Americans and several Europeans who were under scrutiny in the investigation.
The 43 suspects on charged Sunday have also been barred from leaving the country, The Associated Press reported.
The State Department acknowledged last week that its embassy in Cairo had given shelter to three people who worked for the groups and feared arrest. But on Sunday some of the people referred for trial said that the Egyptian police had not yet come to arrest them.