WASHINGTON — The United States said Tuesday it is moving toward a resolution "very soon" with Egypt over a crackdown on American and other pro-democracy groups that has imperiled the decades-old alliance.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the upbeat assessment just before judicial sources said Egyptian judges recused themselves from the trial of 43 workers for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including 19 Americans.
It was not immediately clear whether the development bolstered Clinton's claim that a solution would come soon.
Clinton and US lawmakers have warned the military authorities who have ruled Egypt since president Hosni Mubarak's overthrow a year ago that $1.5 billion in annual aid could be put in jeopardy if the case were not resolved.
"We are engaged in very intensive discussions with the Egyptian government about finding a solution," Clinton told a Senate committee hearing on the State Department's proposed budget.
"We've had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we are moving toward a resolution," the chief US diplomat said.
"But I don't want to discuss it in great detail because it's important that they know that we are continuing to push them but that we don't necessarily put it out into the public arena yet," she added.
When Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pressed for information on the case, Clinton said: "I don't want to go any further than I have in saying that we're hoping to resolve this very soon."
Most of the 43 defendants did not show up in court when their trial opened Sunday in Cairo on charges of receiving illegal foreign funds and working without licenses.
An AFP correspondent said the 14 defendants who did appear in court denied they had committed crimes before the trial was adjourned until April.
But Egypt's state news agency MENA said Tuesday that chief judge Mohammed Shukry sent a letter to the head of the appeals court, which designates trial judges, saying that he and his two colleagues could not continue the trial.
It quoted them as using a formulation that could either mean they felt unease at the proceedings or restrictions on their work.
The trial follows raids in December on the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House -- all from the United States -- as well as on Egyptian and other groups.
US officials immediately demanded the return of seized computers and other property and called on Egyptian authorities to allow the groups to resume normal activities.
Several of the American suspects later sought refuge in their embassy in Cairo, including Sam LaHood, son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and head of the Egyptian chapter of the IRI.
When Graham asked Clinton if she believed the cases against the NGO workers to be legitimate, she replied: "No, I do not."
Some of the groups had helped train activists and candidates to campaign in parliamentary elections that opened last November, Egypt's freest vote in decades.
The charges, which US legislators have derided as political, came as the military faced growing dissent from activists who demand the ruling generals immediately cede power to a civilian government.
In response, the generals have accused their opponents of seeking to destabilize Egypt, which was rocked by an 18-day pro-democracy uprising that overthrew Mubarak, a former military officer, in February last year.
Authorities have played on abundant suspicion in the country of foreign plots, seizing on the case as an example of intervention in the Arab world's most populous country.
After it became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt became the anchor of US diplomacy in the Middle East.
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