An Egyptian court adjourned for two months the trial of 43 workers for pro-democracy organizations, including 16 Americans, in a case that has dragged U.S.-Egyptian relations to their lowest level in years.
Fourteen Egyptian defendants appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to charges including using foreign funds to stoke unrest and operating without a license. The other accused workers weren’t present. Judge Mahmoud Shoukry ordered the adjournment until April 26 and requested the presence of the remaining defendants.
The accused work for five non-governmental organizations, including two linked to U.S. Congressional leaders. The charges carry prison terms of as much as five years.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has raised the case twice in the past few days with her Egyptian counterpart, according to a U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Some U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, have said the allegations are politically motivated and called for a halt to U.S. aid if the case isn’t resolved. The U.S. provides $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
The U.S. hopes to resolve the case within days, the official said. The Americans include Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Clinton, speaking to reporters in Morocco, said she was evaluating today’s court session, adding: “This is a fluid situation, and there are a lot of moving parts that we have to fully understand before I go any further than I have.”
State-run media has sought to characterize the employees’ work as part of a foreign plot to destabilize the transition to democracy after nearly three decades of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s military rulers have argued that “hidden hands” were behind much of the unrest following the ouster of Mubarak last year.
Rights groups have dismissed the criticism and called the moves against the NGOs an attempt to stifle free speech and a throwback to former regime practices of shifting blame onto others to distract the country’s 85 million citizens from domestic problems.
“The rhetoric employed by Egyptian authorities in doing so is increasingly reminiscent of Mubarak-era propaganda,” International Republican Institute head Lorne Craner said in testimony before Congress on Feb. 16. LaHood headed the IRI’s office in Egypt.
Barred From Leaving
Seven of the Americans remain in Egypt and have been staying on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo since the charges were filed and they were barred from leaving the country.
Outside the courtroom today, about 100 protesters called for the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric imprisoned in the U.S. following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, in exchange for the U.S. defendants. A separate group rallied in support of the NGO workers.
The trial comes as the country’s military rulers face mounting pressures over their stewardship of the economy and the transition to a civilian government. The head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, today ordered the parliament to convene on March 3 to elect a committee to draw up a new constitution.
In the wake of the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak, Egypt has run through over 50 percent of its foreign reserves and is seeking a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, as well as additional help from the World Bank and other foreign donors.
During the past few weeks, Tantawi has met with top U.S. officials, including McCain and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the U.S. presses Egyptian officials to find a solution to the crisis.
Political power in Egypt resides primarily with the country’s military leaders although the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have been the victors in recent parliamentary elections.
This year, for the first time, the Obama administration must certify to Congress that Egypt is making progress in developing democracy before aid can be released.