This story has been updated. See the note below.
REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Egypt’s military-backed government faced criticism Thursday for appearing to bow to U.S. pressure by allowing seven Americans accused of fomenting political unrest to leave the country despite months of Cairo casting them as spies and enemies of “foreign hands.”
The turnaround eased the most pronounced diplomatic crisis between Washington and Cairo in decades but damaged the standing of Egypt’s military rulers and pricked the pride of the nation’s sovereignty. Members of Parliament called for an investigation into why the government began prosecuting a case only to abandon it when the U.S. threatened to cut off $1.3 billion in military aid.
The ordeal has marred the credibility and political aspirations of Fayza Aboul Naga, minister of international cooperation, who championed the criminal investigation into foreign nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, accusing them of working with intelligence agencies to benefit U.S. and Israeli interests. Naga was sidelined when the military, which had backed her for months, apparently relented to avoid further damage to U.S.-Egypt relations.
"Lifting the ban is considered a violation to the freedom of Egypt's judiciary," Mustafa Bakri, an independent member of Parliament, told state TV. "The American and European pressure to dismantle the NGOs' case should be addressed, especially that the exposed conspiracy aimed at dividing Egypt and spreading chaos in the country."
[Updated March 1, 12:30 p.m.: State Department officials in turn cautioned Egypt that it may be difficult to obtain U.S. aid this year unless the government allows American and foreign democracy workers to continue their mission.
Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the lifting of travel restrictions “doesn’t resolve the legal case or the larger issue of NGOs in Egypt.” She noted that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will be required this spring to certify to Congress that Egypt is following democratic principles, implying that doing so could be difficult if Egyptian authorities do not allow the groups to continue their work.]
The case centered on 43 civil society workers, 16 of them Americans, charged with receiving millions of dollars in illicit money and operating unlicensed NGOs, including the U.S-funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. A trial began Sunday, but on Wednesday the courts lifted a travel ban on the seven U.S. citizens still in the country.
Egypt said the U.S. posted about $300,000 bail for each defendant; the charges against them have not been dropped. The Americans left from Cairo International Airport on Thursday evening and will probably not return when the trial resumes in April. The future of the case was also called into question this week when the trial’s presiding judges stepped down over what they described as “uneasiness and embarrassment.”
Suggestions of political maneuverings behind the judges' withdrawal intensified throughout the day. Essam Sultan, a lawmaker from the moderate Islamic Wasat Party, said Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Shoukry recused himself after he was pressured by Abdel Moez Ibrahim, chief of the Cairo Court of Appeals, to lift the defendants' travel ban.
"Shoukry is the only man entitled to lift such bans. After he withdrew from the trial, the case should have stayed the way it is without issuing any decisions until a new panel is appointed," Sultan told Egyptian media. "What happened is a disaster because so far we still don’t know who exactly gave the orders to lift the ban."
Bakri called on Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to openly address why Egypt essentially freed the Americans after describing NGO workers as threats to the country's stability. He said the military should explain its actions to avoid speculation, including whether Cairo succumbed to U.S. pressure and in doing so made the judiciary a tool of the military.
Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls nearly half of the new Parliament, have called for an investigation. Many Egyptians have blamed the Brotherhood for not challenging the army’s dominance in order to advance its political aims. Senior Brotherhood members recently appeared to bolster the state's case against the NGOs by threatening to reconsider Egypt's peace treaty with Israel if the U.S. cut aid.
Activists claim the military exploited nationalism and a deepening anti-American sentiment by using the case to divert attention from the army's crackdown on protests and pro-democracy movements since last year's overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. They say the pressure on NGOs has weakened and scared civil society groups calling for government transparency.
“Inquiries made by Parliament will eventually fade because the majority is in favor of the military’s policies,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, head of the Middle East Center for Political Studies. “Aboul Naga was directed and pushed by the military to heighten the tone of her comments about the case. She was used by the military. This is now an embarrassment for the army and Aboul Naga for bringing up such an exaggerated case.”
-- Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan. Paul Richter in Washington contributed.
Photo: Egyptian defendants at Sunday's trial are kept in a heavily guarded cage. Credit: Khalil Hamra / Associated Press