New York Times: Politically Charged Trial of Pro-Democracy Groups Opens in Egypt

Trial of Nonprofit Workers in Egypt Is Abruptly Put Off
The New York Times
By David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh

CAIRO — The politically charged trial here of employees of four American-backed nonprofit groups was adjourned Sunday less than two hours after it began, amid signs that the case was growing into a broader indictment of Egypt’s alliance with the United States.

Until the last minute, United States diplomats made a high-level push to settle the case before the trial opened. American officials said later on Sunday that they still held out hope for a swift resolution of the case, perhaps through an early decision by the presiding judge.

Tensions over the case have already escalated into threats from Washington to cut off $1.55 billion in annual aid to Egypt, and from Cairo to review its Camp David peace treaty with Israel. It could thus upend the three-way alliance that has helped maintain regional stability for 30 years.

The adjournment of the case, until April 26, adds another wrinkle: Congress recently passed a law requiring that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton certify that Cairo is making progress toward democracy before American aid can be delivered to Egypt. State Department officials have said that the deadline for the certification is in April and that Mrs. Clinton would not make the certification while Egypt continued to restrict the American groups and other nonprofit groups.

The scenes of chaos that unfolded on the trial’s opening day underscored the difficulty of unwinding the case. The trial has prompted an outpouring of pent-up resentment against the United States. Egyptians regularly cite America’s support for former President Hosni Mubarak, as well as its steadfast backing of Israel and its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“State media has pushed this whole case as Egyptian sovereignty against ‘U.S. interference,’ ” said Nancy Okail, the Egypt director at Freedom House, a federally financed American nonprofit organization that is one of the targets in the case. “And it was obvious a huge part of what was going on today was a political show for public consumption.”

Ms. Okail, a 34-year-old Egyptian citizen, is a defendant in the case, one of 43. Only 14 of them, including Ms. Okail, appeared in court on Sunday afternoon, remaining in the large metal cage in which defendants are kept in Egyptian courtrooms, just as Mr. Mubarak has been at his trial.

Sixteen of the accused are American citizens; none of them were present. Nine of them are no longer in Egypt; the other seven, barred from leaving the country, have taken refuge at the American Embassy to avoid potential arrest.

Those seven Americans all work for one of two nonprofit groups that are federally financed and closely associated with the Congressional leadership of each major party. One of the seven, Sam LaHood of the International Republican Institute, is the son of Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation.

Lawyers, journalists and camera crews, and other onlookers crammed into the courtroom in a noisy rush. Many stood on court benches all through the hearing to catch a glimpse of the caged defendants.

Prosecutors read out the charges, accusing the defendants of undermining Egyptian sovereignty by opening unlicensed nonprofit groups, relying on unauthorized foreign financing, sending reports back to foreign countries and training political parties.

The state media continue to air more conspiratorial claims about the groups, including that they collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency, that they sought to manipulate the Egyptian uprising to benefit Israel, that they wanted to destabilize Egypt to keep it dependent on the West or even that they plotted to divide Egypt into four smaller countries.

Though the accusations seem far-fetched, many Egyptians say they resonate with the history of American and Western involvement in the Middle East, from the carving up of the map after World War I to the disparity in American aid in favor of Israel, Egypt’s more affluent neighbor. Some say the nonprofit groups’ mission to promote democracy abroad echoes American rhetoric before the invasion of Iraq.

Debate about the case has produced calls from across the political spectrum here for Egypt to break free of dependence on the United States and its money.

Still, human rights advocates here also note that the government officials leading the case were all senior figures in Mr. Mubarak’s United States-backed autocracy.

Seizing the moment and perhaps the spotlight, 15 Egyptian lawyers turned up at the trial, claiming to represent people harmed by the work of the American groups and demanding damages. Many of the 15 sought to give speeches in the court repeating the more sensational allegations, but the judge tried to cut them off.

When supporters of the defendants started chanting against the military rulers who set the case in motion, some of the lawyers tried to shout them down, calling them “agents of America.”

Others in the courtroom were there because of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian convicted and jailed in the United States for plotting a series of bombings and assassinations. “He is an innocent man,” one man shouted. Supporters of Mr. Abdel Rahman here have called for demanding his release in exchange for dropping the charges against the Americans.

Despite the chaos in the court, the 14 defendants in the cage appeared relaxed, joking with one another and chatting on mobile phones. All pleaded not guilty and were released without bail.

Still, Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egyptian-born scholar at the Century Foundation, said the outpouring of anti-American feeling surrounding the case reflected a latent element of the revolt against Mr. Mubarak. “The demands for dignity that were part of the protest movement also implicated what many perceive to be Egypt’s undignified dependency on the U.S.,” Mr. Hanna said.

He said those emotions were making it increasingly hard for the presiding judge or the ruling military council to shut the case down now and avoid a collision with Washington. The Egyptian authorities “have whipped up this frenzy,” Mr. Hanna said, “and it makes a face-saving solution very difficult.”

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from London and Tunis.

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