- - Sunday, February 5, 2012

CAIRO Egyptians are becoming incensed by rising lawlessness and falling security — evidenced by last week’s deadly post-soccer match melee — as protests mount against the military council that has ruled the country since the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak last February.

Meanwhile, tensions between Cairo and Washington heightened Sunday, when Egyptian investigative judges referred 19 Americans and 24 other workers for nonprofit groups that promote democracy to stand trial on charges of using foreign funds to incite unrest.

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 Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Egyptian security officials said. In addition to the 19 Americans, five Serbs, two Germans and three non-Egyptian Arab nationals are also targeted.

The International Republican Institute called the decision “politically motivated” and said it “reflects escalating attacks against international and Egyptian democracy organizations.”

All 43 have been banned from leaving the country. A date has yet to be set for the start of the trial.

Now led by an Islamist-dominated parliament and governed by military rulers, Egypt is struggling for stability in the aftermath of its Arab Spring of pro-democracy protests a year after Mr. Mubarak stepped down, even after the first free and fair elections in its history.

Protesters, who have long criticized the military rulers for not handing over power quickly to civilian leaders, point to Wednesday’s melee between rival fans after a soccer match in Port Said as proof of the military’s malfeasance in a post-Mubarak regime.

“The police just kept watching. They did nothing, nothing at all,” engineer Ahmed Sabry, 28, said of the brawl in which 74 people were killed — the second-deadliest incident of violence in soccer history.

Some said the army’s hands-off approach during the deadly fracas was deliberate in hopes the chaos would convince the public that the military’s authoritarian presence is needed to hold the country together.

“We expected violence during November’s [parliamentary] elections, but the army and police guarded every voting station,” said Khaled Osman, 42, an opera house employee. “In the stadiums, they have a wall of security forces and they could have stopped everything.”

In the days since the soccer melee, 12 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo and elsewhere in this nation of 84 million people.

Egyptians are complaining that a lack of a police presence on the streets since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster has given way to a wave of violent crime that has besieged them in their homes, their businesses and their communities.

This month alone, a spate of armed kidnappings and robberies have jangled nerves already fraught by months of unrest.

Early last week, gunmen brandishing automatic weapons robbed two branches of multinational bank HSBC-Egypt in Cairo, events seldom seen in the Mubarak era. Amateur footage of assailants fleeing one bank in a black sport utility vehicle, assault rifles crackling into the sky, was widely viewed by Egyptian Internet users.

Institutions are increasing security measures, said Sherif Khaled, head of Falcon for Security Services, which contracts for Egypt’s Commercial International Bank.

“Security wasn’t a priority before,” Mr. Khaled said. “In Egypt, we tend to act only after things get ugly. We took steps after last January to double guards and arm them, but many banks are still playing catch-up.”

On Friday, two American tourists and their Egyptian guide were kidnapped by Bedouin gunmen on the road to the historic monastery of St Catherine’s, near Sharm el-Sheikh. The kidnappers, who demanded the release of relatives held in Egyptian jails, released their captives unharmed a few hours later.

Earlier last week, Bedouins in northern Sinai briefly seized 25 Chinese workers at a military-owned cement factory in a bid to free jailed tribesmen. In late January, gunmen stormed a hotel complex south of Taba, demanding the return of land they claimed was stolen by the state.

“The Sinai was a safe place — even when Cairo was seeing attacks, tourism there was stable,” said Mohamed Refaat, manager of several tourist offices on Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square. He later said that “everyone in Egypt is waiting for a calm phase when they can finally relax.”

Egypt’s decision to weigh criminal charges against the 43 foreign workers for nonprofits that promote democracy has given few, if any, a reason to relax.

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

On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Egypt that failure to resolve the dispute may lead to the loss of American aid. Egyptian Foreign 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,” Mr. Amr told reporters at a security conference in Munich, Germany.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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