Call it Mubarak's revenge.
Forty-three democracy activists, accused of serving U.S. and Israeli interests, go on trial in Cairo Sunday, pawns in a high-stakes game apparently being played by the country's former regime from their jail cells. At stake is the future of Egypt, its fragile economy, and its strategically important relationship with the United States and Europe.
Charged with illegal activity as foreign agents, the organizations – four U.S.-based groups and one German – insist they were merely training political parties in how to organize, raise money and deal with the media.
Faisa Abul Naga, Minister of International Co-operation and the chief witness for the prosecution, says she doesn't buy any of that. One of the most senior members of Hosni Mubarak's old guard who is not behind bars, Ms. Abul Naga accuses the groups of working "in co-ordination with the CIA," of inciting "religious tensions between Muslims and Copts," and "pandering to the U.S. Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion."
"Conducting such activities is a blatant challenge to Egyptian sovereignty and serves ulterior motives that greatly harm Egypt and its national security," she told the court's two investigating judges, both members of the state security branch, a holdover from the old regime.
The groups in question – the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists (ICJ) and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation – deny all the charges.
The Mubarak old guard, mostly in jail awaiting trials of their own, have no love for the country's military rulers who ignore them and have put their energy into a transition to democracy and hoping the economy will come back to life.
Infuriated U.S. officials have warned that the $1.55-billion in aid Washington provides each year to Egypt as part of the 30-year-old Israel-Egypt peace treaty is at risk. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in the newly elected parliament, has vowed that if the aid goes, so may the treaty.
John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona and chairman of the IRI, flew to Cairo last week to make his case to the Egyptian government and the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He demanded a speedy resolution to the case.
"We're not making threats," Mr. McCain assured reporters. "There's plenty of time to make threats."
Not all 43 defendants will be in court Sunday. While those currently in the country have been barred from leaving, a large number of the accused already had left Egypt before they were charged. Three of the defendants, including Sam LaHood, son of Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation in the Obama administration, have taken refuge in the U.S. embassy.
While some believe it is a foregone conclusion that U.S. aid, most of it military, will not be approved by Congress if the U.S. activists are not released, the greater threat to Egypt may stem from the billions of dollars in investment and tourism that are not forthcoming because of what is perceived outside the country as such arbitrary action. Even the Brotherhood's recent feelers to U.S. business aren't enough to overcome this crisis.
"The spectre of economic collapse is exactly what the old guard wants," says Hisham Kassem, the former publisher of the Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm. "Guys like Ahmed Ezz [Egypt's wealthy steel baron and a former senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party]have no intention of spending the next 30 years in jail and they're using this threat to spring them."
Indeed, the preliminary section of the 2,200-page list of evidence talks of how spurned Egypt's former leaders felt by the United States in particular.
Unless the old guard, which includes Mr. Mubarak and his two sons, gets some kind of assurance they'll be let off lightly, Mr. Kassem says, Ms. Abul Naga will continue with her case against the activists, with the attendant risk of economic peril. Already, a recently negotiated loan from the International Monetary Fund is being delayed.
"It's getting very scary," Mr. Kassem says. "They're holding the country up for ransom."
If, on the other hand, the ancien regime gets an assurance, then the prosecution may let the defendants off with a fine.
"It's certainly plausible," says one senior NGO official.
"Their fingerprints are all over everything," he says, referring to the Mubarak old guard.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's acting head of state, is believed to be opposed to the trial and worried about the effect of all this on his country. And while it would seem reasonable under these circumstances that the SCAF would step in and get the case against the activists thrown out, that's not likely to happen.
"The case against the outside NGOs is a popular one," acknowledges an official with one of the organizations. "And Tantawi can't be seen as bowing to U.S. pressure."