New York Times: Pro-democracy NGO Workers Leave Egypt

March 2, 2012

U.S. Defendants Leave Egypt Amid Growing Backlash
The New York Times

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Steven Lee Myers

CAIRO — Two United States-financed nonprofit groups paid about $4 million in bail on Thursday to fly 11 employees out of reach of Egyptian courts in a deal that capped weeks of bruising diplomatic wrangling and set off a new outpouring of anti-American denunciations here.

In the final days, American diplomats were forced to rely on the support of their former foe, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as implicit threats to hold up International Monetary Fund aid that Egypt desperately needs to avoid an imminent economic collapse. The United States had already explicitly threatened to end its own $1.5 billion in annual aid. And even as a chartered plane waited through the day at the Cairo airport on Thursday, its takeoff had remained in doubt amid a growing backlash against the perceived American interference in the Egyptian justice system.

No Egyptian official stepped forward to accept responsibility for releasing the Americans. Instead, judges and prosecutors distanced themselves from the decision and traded accusations of political capitulation and conflict of interest. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that now leads Parliament, hedged itself by demanding an investigation into who let the Americans go. Other prominent members of Parliament called it an outrage and demanded public hearings.

Evening television talk shows brimmed with indignation. Even Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former international diplomat and a reliable advocate for such nonprofit groups, called the political interference in the judicial process “a fatal strike to democracy.”

The high monetary and political price paid to extract the group, which included six Americans and seven others, underscored the magnitude of the challenge the United States might face to preserve its close ties to perhaps its most important Arab ally through the uncertain transition to democracy after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The non-Egyptian employees of the groups had been trapped here for more than a month by a travel ban imposed as part of a politically charged criminal case against a handful of nonprofit groups, including three chartered to teach political organizing and other aspects of democracy. One is the German-financed Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which paid bail to extricate two Germans as well. And two are American-financed organizations with close ties to the Congressional leadership: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The Republican group had been headed in Egypt by Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and one of those who left on Thursday’s flight.

As a matter of law, all were accused of violating Mubarak-era restrictions requiring a nonprofit to obtain a license from Egyptian security services and forbidding use of foreign financing without official permission — rules that the American organizations and dozens of other advocacy groups had been allowed to break for years. But prosecutors and officials of Egypt’s military-led government also repeatedly accused the American groups of infringing on Egypt’s sovereignty by sowing unrest in the streets, collaborating with spies and trying to direct the course of Egypt’s revolution toward the interests of the United States and Israel.

As part of a deal, the groups, which rely on government financing, each paid more than $330,000 in bail for each of their foreign-born employees, who were required to sign a statement pledging to return for the next day of trial. American officials have said privately that it is almost unthinkable that they will return, noting that the defendants in Egyptian criminal cases are humiliated by standing imprisoned in a metal cage that serves as a docket.

One American, Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, voluntarily chose to remain in Egypt after his bail was paid, said people involved in the case. Mr. Becker could not be reached for comment. He has recently posted online messages admiring the strength of others who chose to stand in the cage to defend their principles.

American officials said a crucial break came 10 days ago, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm declared its support for the role of independent nonprofit groups, noting that many had helped expose the “atrocities” of the former government.

The Brotherhood’s party said it supported the immediate lifting of the restrictions on nonprofit groups, including the ban on unauthorized foreign financing, in favor of subjecting them to the standards of transparency applied in other democracies. Parliament was already considering a revision to the law.

On Thursday, Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the International Republican Institute and previously a sharp critic of the Brotherhood who recently visited Egypt for talks about the issue, praised the Islamists’ statement as “important in helping to resolve the crisis.”

But the group’s statement also repeated that it “rejects any attempts by foreign governments to undermine the ongoing investigations, or influence the legal process.”

By last Saturday, American diplomats believed they had a deal to pay the bail, end the travel ban and let the trial run its course. But instead of executing that arrangement as the trial began the next day, the judge presiding over the case adjourned until late April. That would potentially put the next step after a deadline of mid-April when the United States had said it would cut off aid to Egypt if the matter was not resolved. State Department officials noted that work on the desperately needed International Monetary Fund loan had ceased for two months during the crisis even as Egypt’s hard currency reserves were dwindling critically.

What happened next is a subject of dispute. Some judicial officials said that the original judge had come under political pressure to approve the deal and so recused himself. Others said that the case was taken away from him because of some family business tie to the United States that created a conflict of interest.

But in either case, by Wednesday night officials were reporting that the travel ban would soon be lifted. Akram el-Shaer, a Brotherhood member of Parliament, called for an investigation into who authorized the lifting of the travel ban. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said the United States would continue to work “with the Egyptian government” to resolve the charges against the groups and their Egyptian staff.

As the flight out of Cairo landed last night in Cypress, Obama administration officials said the State Department intended to deliver the planned aid to Egypt.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Steven Lee Myers from Washington. Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.