U.S. pro-democracy workers facing trial in Egypt for illegally accepting foreign funds left the country yesterday, with the cases against them unresolved and tensions between the two nations still high.
Thirteen workers for non-governmental organizations, including the Americans, departed Cairo in a U.S. government plane after a court lifted their travel ban and their organizations posted bail, according to the U.S. State Department. The group included Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The case drew attention from the highest levels of both governments and threw into question the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which is contingent this year on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifying that the government is advancing democracy. The aid has been a cornerstone of the U.S.- brokered 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the most populous Arab nation.
The dispute over the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, has underscored the uncertain state of U.S.-Egypt relations since pro-democracy protests forced out of office President Hosni Mubarak last year. The Egyptian government’s decision to press criminal charges against American and other pro-democracy workers -- and impose a travel ban -- opened the deepest rift with the U.S. in almost four decades.
“The relationship faces a broader deterioration, not based on this one episode, but on the broader fundamentals of whether the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government want to maintain a productive relationship with Washington,” said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research group.
While welcoming the news about the NGO workers, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Obama administration doesn’t consider the issue resolved.
“This incident could have a severe impact on all of the things we want to do going forward,” Nuland said yesterday in Washington. The workers’ departure doesn’t resolve the legal case or the larger issues surrounding the work of pro-democracy groups in Egypt, Nuland said.
Nuland said that no decisions have been made on the next installment of aid to Egypt, due in the next two months.
As U.S. officials warned of the potential fallout, Egyptian officials heightened their criticism that the U.S. was meddling in a matter for its independent judiciary.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, called the lifting of the travel ban “regrettable.” The case “shows that America continues to interfere in Egypt’s affairs,” he said. The Brotherhood’s party alliance is the largest bloc in Egypt’s recently elected parliament.
The April 6 movement, one of the youth groups that organized the protests that led to Mubarak’s overthrow, said in a statement that it “strongly condemns” the “blatant intervention” in the work of the judiciary and the “mysterious” decision to revoke the travel ban. The group said its criticisms apply “even though everyone knows this is a political case that is no more than a charade” targeting civil society.
Schenker said he expects the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the elections, to tone down its rhetoric in light of the nation’s economic conditions.
“The Brotherhood and others left holding the bag on running this country are walking a fine line,” Schenker said. “They may share the anti-American sentiment, but for all the bravado, they’re keenly aware of the economic situation and the other assistance Egypt might get thanks to U.S. backing.”
In the past year, Egypt has run through about half its foreign reserves, which hit $16.4 billion in January, the lowest level since December 2004, according to central bank data. Reserves fell almost $2 billion a month, on average, since October. In addition to U.S. aid, the NGO dispute jeopardized Egypt’s plans to seek a $3.2 billion IMF credit.
The NGO cases will continue and will be reassigned to a different panel of judges after those initially on the case excused themselves, Egyptian Planning and International Cooperation Minister Fayza Aboulnaga said yesterday.
A total of 43 employees of four democracy promotion organizations have been charged with illegally accepting foreign funds and operating without a license. A fifth group, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is based in Germany. All have been assisting Egyptian democracy activists with voter registration and electoral reform efforts.
Republican, Democratic Links
The Americans were employed by U.S. government-funded democracy advocacy groups allied with the Republican and Democratic parties, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, where Sam LaHood works.
After charges were filed in December, the Americans took refuge in the U.S. Embassy compound in Cairo. The charges carried a possible jail sentences of as long as five years and fines, Ashraf el-Ashmawy, a judge overseeing the case in its early stages, told Bloomberg News.
Nuland said today that the U.S. government paid the workers’ bail, reversing her statement yesterday that the groups did so. It was set at 2 million Egyptian pounds ($332,000) for each defendant, according to Negad El-Boraie, who represents employees of the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, another U.S.-based civil-society group.
“We discussed this issue of bail with the NGOs and we made arrangements with them so that the legal expenses associated with this incident would be treated as part of the activities that the U.S. government funds,” Nuland said today. “We agreed to this because the situation arose in the context of the democracy promotion work that they were doing that we had funded and supported on behalf of the United States.”
She said the workers were in Egypt doing government-funded work and previous administrations have paid fees in similar incidents.
No comment has been made on whether the defendants will return to stand trial.
The U.S. government plane that took off yesterday from Cairo carried 13 NGO workers of several different nationalities, including Americans, Norwegian, Serbian, German, and Palestinian, Nuland said. There were six Americans and one other U.S. citizen chose to stay in Egypt, she said.
U.S. officials had lobbied the Egyptian government on behalf of the NGO employees. State Department officials argued that the organizations had tried for years to register, only to run into bureaucratic red tape.
The International Republican Institute issued a statement yesterday welcoming the decision to lift the travel ban and said it was “hopeful that the charges against its expatriate and local Egyptian staff will be dismissed.”
The group said it remains concerned about the investigations of Egyptian civil society groups “and the impact it will have on Egypt’s ability to move forward with the democratic transition that so many Egyptians have sought.”
Lawmakers in Congress, expressing relief for the NGO workers, reacted similarly. “We hope that the recent decision to postpone the trial of these individuals until April will ultimately lead to the court proceedings being halted altogether,” four senators, who had pressed for the release of the Americans and others during a visit to Egypt last week, said in a statement.
The four are Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Hoeven North Dakota and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
“I remain concerned about the recent moves against Egyptian non-governmental organizations,” Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a separate statement.