Egypt was set to further widen a row with the United States by announcing on Saturday that it would go ahead with a trial of foreign democracy activists, including 19 Americans, on February 26.
A court set the date for the start of the trial of 43 suspects -- who also include Serbs, Norwegians, Germans, Egyptians, Palestinians and Jordanians -- in a crackdown on NGOs accused of receiving illegal foreign aid, state media announced.
The defendants are charged with “establishing unlicensed chapters of international organizations and accepting foreign funding to finance these groups in a manner that breached the Egyptian state’s sovereignty,” official MENA news agency reported.
Officials had previously said 44 suspects would face trial.
Several of the American suspects have sought refuge in their embassy in Cairo as Washington hinted that the crackdown could harm its longstanding ties with the Egyptian government.
The main suspect, Sam Lahood, is the son of U.S. transportation secretary Ray Lahood. He heads the Egyptian chapter of the International Republican Institute, one of the targeted American groups along with the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.
Prosecutors backed by police had raided the groups’ offices in December, confiscating their equipping and waxing their doors.
Activists say the raids, which coincided with growing dissent against Egypt’s military rulers, was part of a campaign to stamp out opposition to the generals who took charge after an uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak a year ago.
Egyptian Minister of Planning Faiza Abul Naga has linked U.S. funding of civil society initiatives to an American plot to undermine Egypt. The democracy groups’ leaders denied their activists had done anything improper or illegal.
The spat is one of the worst in more than 30 years of close U.S.-Egyptian ties and has complicated Washington’s efforts to establish relations with the military council that took power from Hosni Mubarak after his overthrow in a popular revolt a year ago.
A delegation of U.S. lawmakers is scheduled to arrive to Egypt on Monday headed by Senator John McCain who has said he hoped Egyptian officials understood the situation was unacceptable to the United States.