Egypt’s ruling generals are facing a backlash over the departure of Americans on trial over charges that their pro-democracy groups fomented unrest, with the country’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and others accusing military leaders of bowing to pressure from Washington.
Six of the Americans left Egypt on Thursday, after a travel ban against them was lifted, easing a heated diplomatic dispute over the case between longtime allies Cairo and Washington. The moves to prosecute the Americans have sparked U.S. warnings of cuts in the more than $1 billion in aid given to Egypt every year.
Their departure came after days of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between U.S. and Egyptian officials trying to resolve the worst crisis between the two countries in decades.
But it raised an outcry at home against the military, which took power in Egypt after the ouster a year ago of President Hosni Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which controls nearly half of seats in parliament and has emerged as the strongest political group since Mubarak’s fall, said Friday there was “clear interference” in Egypt’s domestic affairs and in the work of the judiciary.
The Brotherhood’s spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said that he believes the United States pressured Egypt’s ruling military council to ensure the Americans return home before the case is concluded and the judicial process runs its course.
“The former regime was subservient to the United States. Until now the military council cannot understand that there was a revolution and continues the same policies of answering to Washington,” Ghozlan told The Associated Press.
The dispute is rooted in a crackdown by Egyptian officials on pro-democracy and human rights groups, including four U.S.-based ones. In December, Egyptian security raided offices a number of the groups, including four American ones - the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists. Officials said the groups were suspected of accepting foreign funds to stir up unrest.
Sixteen Americans from the groups, along with 27 others - including Egyptian, Palestinian, German, Norwegian and Serb nationals - were charged in the case and put on trial. Activists denounced the move as part of a wider government crackdown against those critical of the military’s rule. Nine of the Americans, who had not been put under a travel ban, had already left the country. The rest were allowed to leave Thursday after the U.S. posted almost $5 million in bail. Of the seven Americans who had been barred from travel, one stayed behind voluntarily.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was “very pleased” with the decision by Egyptian courts to lift the travel ban on the seven U.S. citizens.
“Our goal going forward is to continue to work with the Egyptian authorities to try to have these charges dismissed, not only for our people and the other internationals but also for the Egyptians who have been charged,” Nuland told reporters Friday.
The anger over the Americans’ departure was less rooted in a desire to see them prosecuted than in frustration that even after Mubarak’s fall, the system was being manipulated from behind the scenes by Egypt’s rulers.
Leading democracy advocate and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account that political meddling in the judicial process was “a fatal blow to democracy,” adding that the process was “blatantly irreconcilable” with an independent judiciary and democracy. He has been an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime as well as Egypt’s current military rulers.
The trial began on Sunday. But a day before the travel ban was lifted, speculation about generals exerting pressure surfaced when the three judges hearing the case abruptly pulled out Tuesday, citing “uneasiness.”
Lead judge Mohammed Shukry told the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram on Thursday that there was interference in his work, but he did not say who pressured him.
“The problem started with the requests to lift the travel ban on the foreigners,” he said.
The case prompted members of Congress to threaten to cut U.S. aid to Egypt, which now includes an annual $1.3 billion to the military and about $250 million in economic aid. The aid is linked to Egypt's historic 1979 peace deal with Israel and is a cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy.
Sen. John McCain and several top U.S. officials had flown to Cairo in recent weeks to try to bring an end to the dispute. A U.S. official said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the matter twice in person with Egypt’s foreign minister - once in London and once in Tunis - just days before the trial. The day after the trial, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, met with Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S. “to resolve the current situation as quickly as possible,” according to a statement on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt’s website.
On Thursday, McCain - who met with the ruling generals and with the Muslim Brotherhood during his visit last month - said in a statement that he was “encouraged by the constructive role played over the past week by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party” in resolving the dispute.
He pointed to a Feb. 20 statement by the Brotherhood as important to helping efforts. In the statement, the Brotherhood called for the lifting on restrictions on the establishment and registration of civil society groups. It said such groups played an important role during Mubarak’s rule “in exposing the many atrocities of the regime.”
However, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Rashad al-Bayoumi, told the AP on Friday that the group played no role in the decision to allow the American workers to leave Egypt. He said the group did not discuss the issue with military rulers because the case was supposed to be in the hands of the judiciary.
“There is no truth to any reports that the Muslim Brotherhood had any role in this decision,” al-Bayoumi said. “We do not allow anyone inside Egypt or outside of Egypt to interfere in the judicial process.”
Egyptian lawmakers are currently discussing ways to reform laws that govern civil society groups. Under the Mubarak regime, they were required to receive licenses from the government, forcing many to work informally and putting them under constant threat of crackdowns.
Nasser Amin, a legal expert with an NGO that was raided in December but was never charged, sharply criticized the lifting of the travel ban because of political meddling in courts. He called for an investigation into everyone involved in the case, saying that the generals had used the system to portray their critics as agents of foreign powers.
“Mubarak’s regime, which would use the courts for political purposes, remains intact,” Amin said.