The Egyptian government's campaign against civil society groups including US-based organizations amounts to an attempt to divert public attention from the failures of the military-led authorities, leading civil society groups said on Wednesday.
In a statement, 29 Egyptian groups, including human rights organizations, said they were being subjected to a scare campaign by the authorities, which have brought charges against 43 foreign and local activists who include 19 Americans.
The probe has triggered a crisis in ties between Washington and Cairo that could endanger US$1.3 billion in annual US military aid to Egypt. Escalating the row on Tuesday, state-run newspapers splashed accusations of a US plan to spread "anarchy" in Egypt.
"Creating imaginary battles with other states to divert attention from the disasters of the failed political management of the country … cannot be a national goal," the statement from the NGOs said.
"Rather it meets the interest of a limited minority seeking to appropriate power and fortune without being held accountable."
The crisis hit a new low this week with the release of remarks made in October by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abouelnaga in which she linked US funding to civil society to an American plot to undermine Egypt.
Abouelnaga, in the remarks published by state-run media, said Washington had sought to steer the course of the post-Hosni Mubarak period in "a direction that realized American and Israeli interests."
Charges leveled against the accused include working for organizations that were not properly licensed in Egypt and receiving foreign funds illegally. The Egyptian government says it is a matter of law, not politics.
The row is one of the worst in more than 30 years of close US-Egyptian ties and has complicated Washington's efforts to establish relations with the military council that took power from Mubarak after his overthrow in a popular revolt a year ago.
In their statement, the NGOs accused the authorities of using "the same method of the Mubarak regime in using judicial tools to realize narrow political goals".
The statement was not signed by any of the US-based organizations involved in the case. They include the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, both loosely affiliated to the main US political parties.
General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a US Senate hearing on Tuesday he had tried to convince the ruling generals of the gravity of the case during a recent visit to Cairo.
He said the case must be resolved to ensure continued military cooperation.
Responding the Egyptian press reports on Tuesday, the US embassy in Cairo said in a statement that the work of American democracy NGOs had been "transparent and solely intended to assist Egyptian civil society and political parties prepare for Egypt's first genuine democratic elections."
"We have seen media reports claiming that the US is trying to undermine Egypt's stability or prevent it from achieving the goals of the revolution. These reports are completely false," the statement, released late on Tuesday, said.
"The United States shares the Egyptian people's aspirations for a democratic Egypt that is strong, stable and prosperous."