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Americans on trial: a convenient distraction for Egypt's rulers?

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Four of the five organizations involved are American. Two of them, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), are loosely associated with the US political parties and have strong allies in Congress. They ran training for political parties in Egypt and observed elections.

Both IRI and NDI applied for registration with the Egyptian government before the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak. The registration was a requirement under a Mubarak-era law intended to restrict the activities of civil society organizations working for human rights and democracy.

The groups' applications were never approved, but neither were they denied, leaving them in legal limbo. But they had worked in Egypt for years, and officials from both organizations say they were in contact with the authorities about their activities, and were transparent. Both groups were certified by a government entity to monitor parliamentary elections.

Though Egypt always opposed direct US funding to these groups because Egyptian officials preferred to control the money themselves, the US drastically increased funding for the groups after a popular revolt overthrew Mubarak, gambling that Egypt's temporary military leaders would welcome assistance in Egypt's transition to democracy.

More hostile than Mubarak

Instead, they were even more hostile than Mubarak. State media launched a smear campaign against the groups last year. A Mubarak-era minister seen by US officials as the driving force behind the prosecutions initiated an investigation of the groups that led to raids on their offices in December, during which security forces confiscated equipment, documents, and cash.

In a press conference this month, the investigating judges laid out evidence in the case that seemed aimed at portraying the accused as foreign spies who threatened Egypt's national security.

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