LA Times: NGO Workers Departure from Egypt Signals Possible End to Diplomatic Crisis

Egypt Allows 7 American Pro-Democracy Workers to Leave Country
Los Angeles Times
By Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan

Reporting from Cairo — Egypt’s decision Wednesday to allow seven Americans accused of instigating unrest to leave the country followed weeks of intense negotiations and signaled a possible end to the worst diplomatic crisis between Washington and Cairo in decades.

The lifting of the travel ban on the Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, stems a precipitous free fall in relations between Washington and one of its closest allies. There are bruised feelings on both sides, but Egyptian and U.S. officials appeared anxious to avoid the rupture of a relationship that could alter the dynamics of the Middle East.

State television reported that Egypt’s prosecutor general, Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud, permitted the Americans to travel but did not drop the charges against them. Forty-three pro-democracy workers, including 16 Americans, went on trial Sunday accused of operating nongovernmental organizations without a license and receiving millions of dollars in illicit foreign funding.

Most of the Americans had left the country, but seven had sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy to avoid arrest. None of the Americans or other foreigners charged in the case joined 14 Egyptian defendants in the courtroom when the trial began against groups including the U.S.-based International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

The prosecutor’s decision follows Tuesday’s recusal of the three judges who had been presiding over the case. In a memo, the judges said they were stepping aside for “uneasiness and embarrassment.” The document offered no specifics but some in the Egyptian media suggested the judges may have felt political pressure.

“Egyptian relations with the United States are hanging in the balance in this trial and no judge would want to be the man making a ruling that could hamper or jeopardize such relations,” said Mahmoud Abdel Razek, a law professor at the University of Zagazig. “Any verdict might have historical consequences for the whole country.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a House committee hearing that the case was close to being resolved but that talks were difficult because the Egyptian government is in a state of uncertainty as it transitions to a democracy.

“Once we make progress on the NGO issues, then we can have a broader discussion both with the Congress and with the Egyptian government,” Clinton said. “Of course, one of our problems is we don’t really have an Egyptian government to have a conversation with. And I keep reminding myself of that because it is an uncertain situation for all the different players.”

The months-long case has been a test for the Obama administration and Egypt’s ruling military council. The charges against the Americans highlighted Washington’s changed role in a region swept by uprisings and revolts that altered the traditional balance of power. And for the Egyptian army, the matter helped stoke nationalism while deflecting criticism against the military’s human rights abuses since last year’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

The question now is whether Egypt’s army-appointed government can finesse to the public its apparently softer stance toward Washington, which is increasingly viewed as pressing U.S. and Israeli interests. The case gave a platform to Fayza Aboul Naga, minister for international cooperation, who vilified the pro-democracy groups for working with intelligence agencies to threaten Egypt’s sovereignty.

The generals, at least initially, backed Aboul Naga and appeared to misjudge how angry Washington would be over the arrests of the pro-democracy workers. The military quickly faced calls from members of Congress threatening to cut $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid. Egypt’s economy and foreign reserves have been plummeting and analysts believed the generals did not want to further jeopardize relations with Washington.

“I think the whole trial will fade away in the coming weeks,” said Kamal Saad, researcher at Al Sharq Center for political studies. “I don’t think the U.S defendants will be coming back for any hearings.”

The case has also pointed to Egypt’s new political landscape. The Muslim Brotherhood, which now controls nearly half of parliament, announced that Egypt might reconsider its commitment to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel if the U.S. cut aid.

Egyptians have long been suspicious of foreign pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations. Mubarak tolerated the groups, including the International Republican Institute, but his regime would not grant them licenses. The organizations, which worked on election and democracy programs, operated in a gray area.

Aboul Naga, a holdover from the Mubarak government, stepped up pressure on the groups at the same time Egypt’s military-backed government was heavily criticized for crackdowns on activists. The organizations weren’t technically licensed — their paperwork had been submitted — which resulted in raids on their offices and charges against their employees.

If the Americans don’t return for the trial in April, it is uncertain how the court would try the 14 accused Egyptians without angering the public. There is also the question of how relevant the case would be as Egypt grows preoccupied with drafting a constitution and electing a new president in May.

“I think there will be little time for anyone to remember the case of nongovernmental organizations,” said Saad.

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