New York Times: Egypt Lifts Travel Ban on Pro-democracy NGO Workers

Egypt Says It Will Lift Travel Ban, Allowing American Defendants to Leave
The New York Times: International
By David D. Kirkpatrick and Steven Lee Myers

CAIRO — Egyptian officials said Wednesday that they would lift a travel ban barring seven Americans from leaving the country during the politically charged prosecution of four American-financed nonprofit groups here, apparently resolving a crisis that threatened to break the country’s 30-year alliance with Washington.

A chartered plane was waiting at the airport in Cairo for the Americans, who include the son of the secretary of transportation, to carry them out of the country and beyond the reach of the Egyptian authorities. The group had sought refuge in the United States Embassy, where they remained hostages of a prosecution that threatened them with prison, and their departure is expected to cool the sense of crisis.

The United States had threatened to cut off the $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt’s military, and the Egyptians had retaliated by warning that they would reconsider the United States-brokered treaty with Israel.

In order for the defendants to leave the country, they will be required to pay large sums as bail — as high as $300,000 each, according to defense lawyers — and pledge to return for their trial. Lifting the travel ban does not resolve charges against the nonprofit groups or their roughly dozen Egyptian employees, nor does it erase the fear among the many advocacy groups that have come under the same investigation.

At a time when Egyptians are demanding a new independence for their judiciary after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian courts appear instead to have bent to political pressure.

By late Wednesday night, there were already signs of a political backlash, fueled in part by inflammatory accusations from officials pressing the case that the American groups were collaborating with spies to weaken Egypt for the benefit of the United States and Israel. The office of the Egyptian public prosecutor issued a statement distancing him from the decision.

“Could this be? I go out to eat some salad and come back to find that Egypt has knelt?” Reem Saad, director of the Middle East Center at the American University in Cairo wrote in an online comment, recalling the prime minister’s vow that “Egypt will not kneel” to United States pressure.

The order to lift the travel ban follows weeks of increasingly tense diplomatic wrangling as American officials confronted what they came to describe as a vacuum of authority in the final months before the military council is to hand power to an elected president. Until the last moment before the announcement, the military leaders, top diplomats and senior judicial officials all professed that they could not interfere until the investigation had run its course.

“One of our problems is we don’t really have an Egyptian government to have a conversation with,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in testimony Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “And I keep reminding myself of that, because it is an uncertain situation for all the different players.”

The case could hardly have been better designed to infuriate American officials. All of the Americans under the travel ban work at groups known for their close ties to the Congressional leadership: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The latter is directed by Sam LaHood, son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

The groups, which are chartered by Congress to promote democracy abroad and forbidden by law from seeking to influence election results, operated at some level in Egypt for several years though they faced heavy restrictions under Mr. Mubarak as well. Both were formally invited to observe the parliamentary elections last fall. They are best known for offering how-to training programs for political campaigns, and community organizing. Parties across the political spectrum — leftists, liberals, the mainstream Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservatives of the Salafi movement — have all participated.

The groups were charged under Mubarak-era restrictions requiring permission from security agencies to form a nonprofit group or receive money from abroad. Although no one disputes that the groups violated those rules, most observers here expected the rules to end with Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, and almost all independent advocacy groups here — dozens — violate the same rules.

The investigation was initiated last spring by a cabinet minister held over from the Mubarak government, Fayza Abul Naga, who had battled American officials for years to control the flow of United States aid to Egypt and stamp out any attempts to support independent political, organizing or advocacy groups.

The case was accompanied by a steady escalation of anti-American statements in the state news media suggesting that the United States was paying nonprofit or activist groups to stir unrest in the Egyptian streets. And in December it culminated in raids by squads of heavily armed riot police officers that shut down a handful of foreign-financed nonprofit organizations, including the four American groups, seizing money, files and computers.

Soon President Obama was on the phone to Egypt’s top military officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, warning him of the gravity of the United States threat to end its $1.3 billion in military aid. But despite the mounting pressure, Egyptian officials continued to defer to the prosecutors and courts, increasingly wary of the domestic political price of appearing to bow to America’s demands. As recently as Saturday, American officials said they believed they were close to a deal to end the travel ban by the time the trial began the next day. But then on Sunday the Egyptian judges hearing the case surprised the United States officials by quickly adjourning for two months, until April 26.

Then, Tuesday night, the judges abruptly recused themselves with no public explanation. Behind the scenes, a more senior judge had asked them to reconsider the ban, the judges wrote in a letter requesting their recusal. They wrote that the suggestion from above amounted to political pressure and had compromised their position, according to the letter, which was reported Wednesday afternoon in the Egyptian state media.

Their recusal, however, put the matter back in the hands of the top judiciary officials pending a new court assignment, and late Wednesday night they began putting out word that the ban would be lifted. United States officials, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of disrupting the deal before it was finalized, said they expected to transport two other foreigners working for the groups out along with the seven Americans.

The American officials said Wednesday that they would continue to fight the case in court. Freedom House, another American group chartered to promote democracy, was also singled out in the investigation, but none of its American employees were caught by the travel ban.

Its director, Nancy Okail, is Egyptian and unaffected by the American deal. In the cage that served as a docket during the hearing on Sunday, she read a book by George Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia.”

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

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