U.S. Senators Meet Egypt Officials Before NGO Worker Trial

A delegation of U.S. officials including Senator John McCain met with Egyptian officials in Cairo before a scheduled trial of nongovernmental workers including 19 Americans that threatens to derail relations between the two countries.

Speaking today at a meeting of foreign ministers in Los Cabos, Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to speculate on possible next steps.

“We are not only deeply concerned about the situation as it affects Americans, but also other nationalities and even Egyptians who have been charged in this case,” she told reporters.

Clinton and other officials are saying little about the case in public because the U.S. administration is still hoping a face-saving resolution to the matter can be found before a trial causes serious damage to relations between the two countries, said two administration officials involved in the issue. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to talk to the news media.

Criminal Charges

McCain and U.S. senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham discussed the case today with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council. The criminal trial of 43 workers for nongovernmental organizations, who face charges that include illegally accepting payments from abroad, is due to begin on Feb. 26. The son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who works for the Washington-based International Republican Institute, is among the accused.

“We hear it said that these NGOs are violating Egyptian sovereignty and meddling in this country’s internal affairs,” McCain, an Arizona Republican, told journalists. “Nothing could be further from the truth. 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.”

Egyptian politicians and media have issued accusations of foreign meddling just as the country seeks loans from the International Monetary Fund, in which the U.S. is the biggest shareholder. Egypt has applied for $3.2 billion in IMF credit to help repair an economy that has stagnated since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak a year ago. Tourists and investors have shunned the country and international reserves have dropped by more than half.

Foreign reserves plunged to $16.4 billion in January, covering little more than three months of imports. Finance Minister Momtaz El-Saieed said this month that Egypt also needs $11 billion to “fund economic reforms.”

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