Local media reports suggest that a US military plane is set to transport American democracy activists from Egypt after airport authorities formally confirmed the lifting of a travel ban, a decision condemned by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood as an instance of U.S. interference in the country’s domestic affairs.
“Instructions have arrived to lift the travel ban on the accused Americans in the case of foreign financing to allow them to leave should they turn up to travel,” one airport source said.
The Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party supported the crackdown on civil society, and the group today condemned the lifting of the travel ban on the NGO workers.
“It’s a regrettable decision,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Brotherhood spokesman. The case “shows that America continues to interfere in Egypt’s affairs,” he said.
The self-styled revolutionary April 6 movement also criticized the move, saying in a statement that it “strongly condemns” the “blatant intervention” in the judiciary and the “mysterious decision to revoke the travel ban.
Ending the travel restrictions raises the prospect of a resolution to a row that has damaged U.S.-Egyptian relations, threatened a $1.3 billion package of military aid and cast a shadow over the troubled transition.
“Once the U.S. and other foreign NGO employees have left the country, and the media spotlight moves on, the threat remains over the Egyptian employees (of NGOs involved) as does a large question mark over the way that NGOs and civil society are seen in Egypt,” said one Western diplomat.
He said the case may have been used, at least in part, to divert attention from a faltering economy.
“We don’t know if this is a resolution to the larger crisis or not,” said Michelle Dunne,* head of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. “Lifting the travel ban would be a good thing and a de-escalating step, but we’ll have to see if they continue to prosecute Egyptians and others left behind.”
Dunne, a former diplomat and Middle East specialist who worked for the State Department and the National Security Council, noted that the lifting of the travel ban would still leave the NGOs’ non-U.S. employees facing trial on criminal charges.
But other observers believe the authorities have made a calculation that proceeding with the prosecution of U.S. and other foreign nationals threatens urgently-needed financial assistance, and it would be politically unacceptable to try Egyptian citizens while foreigners went free.
“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.”
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.
A judicial source insisted the charges would not be dropped and lawyers representing the democracy activists said the prosecution could still proceed:
Hafez Abu Saeda, a lawyer involved in the case, says that an Egyptian court had decided to lift the travel ban yesterday for all foreigners charged in the case, and local media reported that a US military plane was waiting at the Cairo airport to transport the Americans out of Egypt.
The case has not been closed, however. An official from one of the American NGOs said today that the organization has not been informed officially of any change in the travel ban status. And an Egyptian newspaper reported that airport authorities prevented a British man connected to the case, though not charged, from leaving Egypt today.
A judicial source said charges would not be dropped.
“There is a realisation on all sides that the relationship with the United States is extremely important. For the United States, Egypt is a pivotal country,” said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a professor at the American University in Cairo and a member of an advisory council appointed by the ruling military.
“But this is a long-standing strategic alliance that I think the NGO case could not jeopardise, although we do not agree to any interference or any threat of removing the financial aid.”
The case against the Egyptian and foreign non-governmental organizations appeared to unravel earlier this week when the judges presiding over the proceedings recused themselves.
The head of the Cairo Appeal Court, Judge Abdel-Moez Ibrahim, today admitted that he asked the lead judge to stand down.
In an interview on state TV’s Channel One, Ibrahim admitted to asking Judge Mohamed Shokri to recuse himself from the case. According to Ibrahim, there was a conflict of interest, as Shokri’s son works in a legal consultancy office, which deals with the US embassy.
Whatever the outcome of the case, Egyptian democracy advocates believe the affair has highlighted the strength and resilience of illiberal forces evident in the triple alliance of the military, former Mubarak elements, and Islamist groups that supported the crackdown.
“The crisis over the NGOs is more about trimming Egyptian civil society in the coming future. The case poses a threat to Egyptian civil society,” said Mohamed Mohie, head of an Egyptian NGO not involved in the case, the Human Development Society.
The dispute over the case has been prolonged by the absence of a single locus of authority in Egypt’s government, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“They don’t have an executive that would have such authority to be able to determine what is and is not the policy of the new Egyptian government,” she told the BBC.
U.S. officials have sought to absolve the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces from blame for the dispute, identifying Fayza Abul Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation, as the instigator of the conflict.
A holdover from Hosni Mubarak’s cabinet, she accused the NGOs of attempting to sabotage Egypt’s transition.
“Evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests, not only in Egypt, but in the whole region,” she said.
Pro-democracy and human rights groups are demanding that the U.S. and other international actors continue to support Egypt’s civil society movement.
“The U.S. government must continue to make clear to the Egyptian government that independent, non-governmental organizations should be able to carry out their essential activities free from harassment, defamation in the state-run media and politically motivated criminal investigations,” said Neil Hicks, international policy adviser for Human Rights First.
*Michelle Dunne is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.