CAIRO (AP) — Twelve of Egypt's best known bloggers and activists are headed for trial on charges of instigating violence during a March demonstration against the president's Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's state prosecutor announced Wednesday.
This was the latest measure by President Mohammed Morsi's government against dissenters, moves that have drawn criticism from human rights groups and foreign governments, including the U.S.
It coincided with an angry protest by writers, artists and intellectuals who stormed the office of the culture minister, chanting, "I am not an infidel, I am an artist. I reject the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood." They vowed not to leave until the minister steps down.
Critics charge that steps taken by the new minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, are an attempt to consolidate the Brotherhood's control over the ministry. The minister, who supports the Brotherhood, has fired several senior officials at the ministry.
The referral to trial of the 12 activists and bloggers is seen by critics as part of the government's tactics to stifle dissent ahead of planned mass protests on June 30, calling for Morsi's ouster on the anniversary of his taking office.
The president accuses the opposition of stirring up unrest to undermine his authority, charging loyalists of ousted President Hosni Mubarak with seeking to derail the country's shift to democracy.
The charges against the activists come from a March 22 fight between Morsi's supporters and opponents outside the Brotherhood's headquarters atop Cairo's Muqattam cliff. More than 200 people were injured.
MENA, the state news agency, quoted Prosecutor General Talaat Abdullah, a Morsi appointee, as saying the 12 included Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Nawara Negm, Ahmed Douma, and Karim el-Shaer, well-known youth leaders who helped spearhead the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. On Monday, Douma received a six-month suspended sentence for insulting the president.
Abdullah did not refer any Brotherhood supporters to trial.
In another sign of the turmoil that continues to roil Egypt two years after the ouster of Mubarak, workers at the largest terminal at Cairo International Airport blocked airplanes on the tarmac and disrupted flights. The Minister of Civil Aviation fired 15 of the strike leaders and suspended 30 others for endangering the lives of passengers. The strike ended after three hours of negotiations. The striking workers were demanding bonuses and dismissal of corrupt officials.
The protests sweeping the country over power outages, fuel and water shortages and perceived changes to Egypt's identity by the Brotherhood, reflect Egypt's deep polarization and worsening economic conditions under Morsi, the country's first freely elected leader.
The March 22 clashes came during spike in political violence in Egypt. Islamists say that the opposition is unable to beat them at the ballot box and has been trying to undercut them through street protests, wrecking the country's stability. In a speech following that demonstration, a visibly angry Morsi shouted and pounded the table, warning his opponents he was on the verge of taking unspecified measures to protect the nation.
Activists respond that Brotherhood street protesters have been responsible for many of the violent incidents, but were never charged. The March clashes were set off by a videotaped incident in which a Muslim Brotherhood member slapped a woman to the ground and others roughed up activists who were spray-painting anti-Brotherhood graffiti. Brotherhood officials accused the protesters of attacking the group's office and said its members were defending the building.
Several of the 12 said their referral to trial is a political decision.
Karim el-Shaer, a blogger, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he was among those who called for the March protest outside the Brotherhood offices but that he had asked that protesters come unarmed.
"The referral to trial is designed to terrorize people and sow panic ahead of June 30, but it will backfire because people will not back down," said el-Shaer.
Morsi's government has come under heavy international criticism also over Tuesday's court ruling against 43 workers, including 15 other Americans, who were sentenced to up to five years in prison in a case against foreign-funded pro-democracy groups. All but one of the Americans left the country before the trial. The other left after the verdict.
The verdict was strongly denounced by the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry and a host of powerful lawmakers expressed outrage, charging that the trial and verdict were politically motivated and incompatible with Egypt's transition to democratic rule.
On Wednesday, the Cairo Criminal Court released reasons for its ruling. "Funding is one of new forms of hegemony and control. It is considered a soft imperialism," the court said in a statement. It charged that funding is used by the donors to "shaken security and stability of the recipient state to weaken and dismantle."
It also said that the civil groups used democracy and human rights as a cover to "infiltrate national security, topple the state institutions, divide the society, fragment it, reshape its national fabric and its sectarian and political map to serve the American and the Israeli interests."