The Egyptian judges trying dozens of democracy activists, including Americans, in a case that has strained ties with Washington recused themselves from the trial Tuesday, judicial sources said.
They gave no reason for refusing to carry on with the trial, which opened on Sunday.
In such instances, the case is normally referred to the court of appeals, which appoints a new panel of judges.
The trial opened amid continuing U.S. pressure on its close ally to drop the charges against the activists, who worked with five foreign NGOs accused of receiving illicit foreign funds and operating without licenses.
Egypt judicial sources say 19 Americans are among the 43 defendants of various nationalities. None of the foreigners showed up at Sunday’s hearing.
Several of the Americans have sought refuge in their Cairo embassy, including Sam LaHood, the head of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute and son of U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood.
The trial sparked a rift between Washington and Egypt’s military rulers, who took power after an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak a year ago.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday voiced hope that the issue could still be resolved - but declined to discuss details of what she called “very intensive discussions” with the Egyptian government.
“We’ve had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we’re moving toward a resolution,” Clinton told a Senate panel.
U.S. officials have made clear that the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt has been put at risk.
If the case drags on, it could cause longer-term damage in U.S. relations with Egypt, which has been a pillar of Washington’s alliances in the Arab world and, along with Jordan, is the only Arab country to have a peace treaty with Israel.
The diplomatic timing is also tricky. With Egyptian prosecution lawyers airing espionage accusations, the country gearing up for a presidential election before the end of June and the U.S. Congress already questioning continued aid to Egypt, many analysts say the case could veer even more wildly off track if it is not stopped in coming weeks.
“The chances that the United States and Egypt will have a breach over aid have gone up,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“What also seems obvious is that this case is going to continue, and may actually reach its climax in the midst of the Egyptian presidential election. The idea of a smooth, face-saving resolution seems to be retreating.”