Egypt presidential vote to be held earlier

Egypt's top election official says voting for a new president will be brought forward from June, in line with demands by protesters, but he has not set a new date.

Military leaders firm on prosecuting foreign workers for 'plotting' unrest

Workers from the non-governmental organization National Democratic Institute wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo in December. On Sunday, Egyptian investigating judges referred 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, to trial before a criminal court for allegedly being involved in banned activities and illegally receiving foreign funds, security officials said. (Mohammed Asad/File/Associated Press )

Egypt's top election official says voting for a new president will be brought forward from June, in line with demands by protesters, but he has not set a date.

Activists have continued to pressure the country's military rulers to implement reforms since their occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square forced the ouster of leader Hosni Mubarak a year ago.

They're hoping an earlier election will lead to a civilian government that would take charge of drafting a new constitution, instead of leaving that task to the military.

Election commission chief Abdel-Moez Ibrahim told the Egyptian daily Al Ahram he did not set a date for the election, but he said nominations for the presidency would be accepted March 10, a month earlier than the original date.

Thousands of Egyptians have been demonstrating, demanding that the military speed up the process of electing a new president.

The protesters charge the military has bungled the transition and adopted the repressive measures of Mubarak's regime. The military has insisted on overseeing writing of a constitution before handing over power.

Trial for foreign non-profit workers

In another development, Egypt has referred 19 Americans and 24 other employees of non-profit groups to trial before a criminal court on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.

Egypt's military rulers had already deeply strained ties with Washington with their crackdown on U.S.-funded groups promoting democracy and human rights and accused of stirring up violence in the aftermath of the uprising. The Sunday decision to send 43 workers from the various groups to trials marks a sharp escalation in the dispute.

Egypt and the United States have been close allies for more than three decades, but the campaign against the organizations has angered Washington, and jeopardized the $1.5 billion US in aid Egypt is set to receive from the U.S. this year.

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Egypt that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of American aid. The Egyptian minister, Mohammed Amr, responded Sunday by saying the government cannot interfere in the work of the judiciary.

"We are doing our best to contain this but … we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," Amr told reporters at a security conference in Munich. A few hours later, word of the referral to trials came.

Political turmoil

The Egyptian investigation into the work of non-profit groups in the country is closely linked to the political turmoil that has engulfed the nation since the ouster of Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years.

Egypt's military rulers have been under fire by liberal and secular groups for bungling what was supposed to be a transition to democracy after Mubarak's ouster. The ruling generals who took power after the uprising, led by a man who was Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years, have tried to deflect the criticism by claiming "foreign hands" are behind protests against their rule and frequently depict the protesters as receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.

Those allegations have cost the youth activists who spearheaded Mubarak's ouster support among a wider public that is sensitive to allegations of foreign meddling and which sees a conspiracy to destabilize Egypt in nearly every move by a foreign nation.

Egypt has just been plunged into a new cycle of violence with 12 killed in four days of clashes. The clashes were sparked by anger at the authorities inability to prevent a riot after a soccer match last week left 74 people dead.

International Co-operation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a remnant of the Mubarak regime who retained her post after his ouster, is leading the crackdown on non-profit groups. On Sunday, she vowed to pursue the issue to the very end. The investigation into the funding issue, she claimed, has uncovered "plots aimed at striking at Egypt's stability."

Egyptian security officials said that among the Americans sent to trial is Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Five Serbs, two Germans and three non-Egyptian Arab nationals have also been targeted.

Lahood's group called the decision "politically motivated" and said it "reflects escalating attacks against international and Egyptian democracy organizations." The IRI statement from Washington said the campaign was being carried out "in part by Mubarak-era holdovers."

All 43 have been barred from leaving the country. A date has yet to be set for the start of the trial. They can face between three and seven years in jail if convicted on the charges.

'Searching for scapegoats'

Previously, Egyptian authorities had prevented at least six Americans — including LaHood — and four Europeans from leaving the country, citing a probe opened several weeks ago when heavily armed security forces raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy and rights groups. Egyptian officials have defended the raid as part of a legitimate investigation into the groups' work and funding.

"The ruling military council is searching for scapegoats to cover up its successive failures, the disastrous ones, since it took power on Feb. 11 [2011]," said prominent rights activist Bahy Eddin Hassan. "It has managed to stain the reputation of everybody to come out as the only party to be trusted in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians."

Laws requiring local and foreign civil society groups to register with the government have long been a source of contention, with rights activists accusing authorities of using legal provisions to go after groups critical of their policies. Offenders can be sentenced to prison if convicted.

Foreign civil society groups must receive permission to legally operate in Egypt by registering with the ministries of foreign affairs and international co-operation. Legally, the Social Solidarity Ministry must approve any foreign funds funneled to local or foreign civil society groups in Egypt.

With files from The Associated Press