The criminal trial of 16 American pro-democracy workers opened in Cairo on Sunday as U.S. and Egyptian diplomats attempted to resolve a deepening crisis between longtime allies that have grown increasingly estranged since the uprisings that have swept the Arab world in the last year.
The politically charged case, punctuated by bruising rhetoric on both sides, is a sign of Washington's ebbing influence in the region and a test of Egypt's ruling military council's ability to finesse an end to a drama that could result in the curtailment of $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid. Contradictory signals from the Egyptian government and perceived U.S. arrogance have hampered a resolution.
Most of the accused Americans have left Egypt and the seven remaining, including Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy to avoid possible arrest. None of the Americans and activists from other nations were in the defendants' cage with 14 accused Egyptians in a north Cairo courtroom.
Judge Mahmoud Mohammed Shoukry, who at one point left the bench to escape the noise from a crush of lawyers and journalists, said the 43 defendants are charged with operating nongovernmental organizations without a license and receiving millions of dollars in illegal funding. Much of the criminal case centers on the activities of two American-based groups, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.
The organizations have gathered "information on Egypt's economy and army to destabilize the nation's security," prosecutor Mohamed Gheitani told the court before the judge scheduled the next hearing for April 26.
The groups have worked on democracy and election programs in Egypt for years and had applied for licenses that were never granted. President Hosni Mubarak tolerated the groups, but since his overthrow last year, Egypt's generals have accused foreign nongovernmental organizations of advancing U.S. and Israeli interests while fomenting unrest that led to months of deadly protests.
That narrative has been sharpened by Fayza Aboul Naga, a Cabinet minister for international cooperation, who has accused the groups of working with intelligence agencies to threaten Egypt's sovereignty. Such characterizations have resonated with a widening strain of anti-Americanism here and at least initially were endorsed by the military rulers. The army has not moved to silence Aboul Naga even as it assures U.S. officials it doesn't want to further damage relations with Washington.
The mixed signals speak to an Egypt in flux as it struggles to build a democracy from a revolution many believe has been hijacked by the military and other political forces.
The generals have vowed to step aside after a president is elected in June. They are preparing a transition while overseeing the Cabinet and negotiating with a new parliament controlled by Islamists who have long been wary of U.S. regional influence. Some in the Egyptian media criticized the military council for miscalculating the furor the pro-democracy case would ignite in Washington.
Recent talks between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr failed to end the crisis, as did a visit last week to Cairo by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the International Republican Institute. Yousry Abushady, a former international nuclear inspector and Mubarak supporter who recently met with Aboul Naga, told reporters that the visit by McCain and one by Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were "tainted by U.S. arrogance."
Clinton told reporters Sunday while traveling in Morocco that the Egyptian case is "a fluid situation and there are a lot of moving parts."
Negad Borai, a lawyer representing Egyptian defendants working for pro-democracy groups, said U.S.-Egypt ties were too important to jeopardize. He predicted the criminal case "will probably stay big for the next hearing and then fade away."
Sitting outside the courtroom, where supporters and detractors of the ruling military chanted and argued, Borai noted that Clinton is pressing Congress not to cut the military aid and more than $200 million in economic aid to Egypt. He said it was wise for the accused Americans not to appear in court: "Images of them behind bars in Egypt wouldn't help Clinton's cause," he said.
The scene around the courthouse grew more raucous when ultraconservative Islamists yelled anti-Western slogans and demanded that the American defendants be swapped for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian cleric jailed in the U.S. for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Many Egyptian activists said the pressure against nongovernmental organizations is a ruse by the military council to frighten human rights groups and deflect criticism of its abuses over the last year.
"There's something fishy about the whole case," said Laila Abaza, a relative of one of the Egyptian defendants and a member of the Arab Alliance for Women. The accused organizations have been working in Egypt for six or seven years without any problems, so she wonders why these charges are being brought now.
"This is not a good sign for civil society organizations in Egypt. They were supposed to be closely watching development in Egypt after the revolution, but now they are retreating and afraid."
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.