Egypt's parliament moved Sunday toward a vote to order an end to more than $1 billion in U.S. aid, a reflection of tensions with Washington over the case of Americans charged with illegal activity by their pro-democracy groups.
The U.S. was angry enough over the charges against the American workers that it threatened to cut off aid to Egypt. The measure in the Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament, probably just symbolic, showed that there is considerable anger in Cairo over charges that U.S. pressure led to interference in the judicial process.
The 508-seat chamber also voted to start the process of a no-confidence vote in the military-backed government, a move that, if successful, could spark a political crisis with just under four months left before the military is scheduled to hand over power to a civilian administration.
The move by the People's Assembly against U.S. aid was sparked by the March 1 departure of six American defendants in a case of 43 employees of nonprofit groups accused of using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest in Egypt.
The 43 include 16 Americans, nine of whom were already outside the country when the case was referred to trial. One opted to stay behind.
The rest of the 43 are mostly Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Germans.
The U.S. threatened to cut off aid to Egypt over the issue, but the departure of the six partially eased the crisis, the worst between the two allies in 30 years.
Even if the chamber voted to reject U.S. aid, the move could amount to only a symbolic gesture, given the wide powers enjoyed by the generals, who collectively act as the presidency. They would likely veto such a measure in the name of national security.
The exit of the American defendants set off a storm in Egypt, prompting many to accuse the ruling generals of bowing to U.S. pressure and intervening in the work of the judiciary. Egypt's military has benefited the most from the nation's close ties with the United States. It is due to get $1.3 billion in aid this year. U.S. economic assistance for 2012 is about $250 million.
In Sunday's session, lawmakers complained the U.S. had no respect for Egypt's sovereignty and called for a vote on a no-confidence motion in Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri's government. The move against the government came after four Cabinet ministers briefed the chamber on the case. Lawmakers constantly interrupted their testimony and later said the ministers did not show enough respect for the parliament.
Lawmakers said el-Ganzouri's government should be replaced by a coalition that mirrors the makeup of the legislature, where Islamists hold more than 70 percent of the seats. The military rulers say only they have the right to dismiss the Cabinet.
Several lawmakers also said it was the generals and not the government that must be questioned about the nation's "humiliation" by the United States over the case. The generals have said they had nothing to do with the Americans' departure and that the entire affair was in the hands of the judiciary. However, the judge who presided over the trial's opening hearing on Feb. 26 excused himself late last month, citing uneasiness.
Judge Mahmoud Mohammed Shoukri later said in comments to the media that he quit to protest political meddling in the case, which is now being tried by another Cairo court.
"I wish members of the U.S. Congress could listen to you now to realize that this is the parliament of the revolution, which does not allow a breach of the nation's sovereignty or interference in its affairs," Parliament Speaker Saad el-Katatni, an Islamist from the chamber's largest party, told lawmakers.
Suggesting that a crisis was looming between the legislature and the Cabinet, el-Katatni adjourned the session until Monday. He said Cabinet ministers scheduled to answer lawmakers' questions failed to show up.
"It seems that the government is pushing for a crisis with parliament," el-Katatni said.