CAIRO Egypt said on Wednesday it would not be swayed by threats to aid when probing NGOs over charges they received foreign cash without official approval, a case that has led Washington to warn that $1.3 billion a year of military aid may be at risk.
A total of 43 foreign and local activists have been banned from leaving Egypt and their cases have been referred to a criminal court. Egypt said top U.S. army officials would visit Cairo soon in an attempt to resolve the impasse.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it had received a "formal charging document of foreign-funded pro-democracy groups and non-governmental organizations.
The United States wants Egypt to drop travel bans on at least 19 U.S. citizens involved in the case, but the Egyptian government says it cannot intervene in the probe. It has given no details of who has been charged with what, saying it was still working through the more than 100-page Arabic document.
"Egypt will apply the law ... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons," army-appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri told a news conference.
The case has put a deep strain on relations with Washington, which counted Egypt as a close strategic ally under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Both the U.S. Congress and the White House have said the investigation could threaten the aid budget.
An Egyptian army official told Reuters U.S. army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would meet Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, on Saturday to discuss military ties and the criminal charges against the U.S. NGO workers. U.S. Central Command Gen. James Mattis will meet Tantawi on Monday.
The Pentagon has had the strongest relationship of any U.S. agency with Egypt's military and the visit could help resolve the impasse, another Egyptian official said, adding that the White House has had difficulty dealing with the military on political issues.
"The tension is partly between Congress and the Pentagon, who seem to have differing perspectives on the current impasse and varying levels of access to Egypt's military leadership," the official said.
Two Egyptian officials told Reuters on Tuesday that the government would back down because allowing the row to drag on could jeopardize aid from Washington that dates back to 1979, when Egypt became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.
The row adds to tensions over the uncertain transition to democracy under an army council that took charge after Mubarak was driven from office on February 11 by a popular uprising. Egypt is still reeling from political turmoil and violence.
REFUGE IN EMBASSY
Some of the U.S. citizens, belonging to the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), which have loose links to the top U.S. political parties, sought refuge in the American embassy.
Judge Sameh Abu Zaid, one of two judges leading the probe, told a news conference on Wednesday that the raids on NGO offices at the end of last month, which first drew U.S. criticism, were conducted in line with Egyptian criminal law.
He said a travel ban was imposed when some called for questioning left the country. Lawyers produced travel documents as proof of absence. "In such situations, the judges place a travel ban to be able to continue the investigation," Abu Zaid said.
"There is a lot of evidence, some of it dangerous. We have about 160 pages of evidence ... ," the judge said, ranging from "witness accounts to reports by experts and specialized committees, and confessions by some of the accused individuals."
The investigation showed that the NGOs' activities were "purely political with no relation to civil society work," he said, adding that there were 67 different charges.
Abu Zaid said one foreign NGO had sought help from a local operation to launch an online page to list the number and locations of churches, and to identify the location of army units in Ismailia and Suez, cities east of Cairo. He said this indicated political activities outside the mandate of NGOs.
U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson sent a letter to the judges on January 23 asking the authorities to lift the travel ban imposed on 21 American citizens, saying they had been "very cooperative" with the investigators, Abu Zaid said.
U.S. nonprofit workers have also violated Egyptian foreign residency law because they had been working in Egypt on tourist visas, based on orders from abroad not to obtain work permits or visas but to keep renewing their tourist visas annually, Abu Zaid said.
The NGOs have also violated Egyptian tax laws by not declaring any income or paying taxes on the salaries and bonuses paid to their nonprofit workers, he said.
Abu Zaid said that the NGOs had conducted surveys and polls whose results had not been published in Egypt but had instead been sent to their headquarters in the United States.
(Writing by Edmund Blair and Marwa Awad; Editing by Louise Ireland and Vicki Allen)