The mysterious departure of foreign non-governmental organization (NGO) workers facing trial in Egypt has left many questions unanswered with no one claiming responsibility for the decision to lift the travel ban. The NGO case continues to strike a nerve in Egypt’s political and judicial arena as well as the general public.
Egypt imposed travel bans for 43 NGO workers, including 16 Americans, in February on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and working in the country without licenses.
The travel ban was mysteriously lifted after the trial judges recused themselves last week citing “reasons of discomfort.” A group of 13 foreign NGO workers, including six Americans, left Egypt on a U.S. plane on Feb. 6.
A new panel of judges has been appointed to investigate the charges and the next hearing is scheduled on Thursday.
Heated controversy has dominated the Egyptian political scene since and fingers have been pointed to different parties, including the ruling military council, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the government.
Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri on Tuesday said the NGO case was a judicial matter and the government had not intervened.
“By nature, it is very difficult for me to accept any pressure,” he told reporters in Cairo.
International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul Naga, the public face of the NGO funding case, claims that she did not know that the travel ban on the indicted foreigners had been lifted and that she only found out afterwards, a report by Egypt’s online edition of al-Ahram reported on Tuesday. She said that her ministry was not involved in the decision.
Abul Naga told the first session of the Shura Council (the country’s upper house of parliament) that her reaction to the NGO case was based on her “feeling of responsibility and commitment towards the country.”
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), meanwhile, has spoken of the strong political relationship between Washington and Cairo.
“The judicial system is the only entity responsible for the foreign funding case and the military council did not impose any decision on them,” a top SCAF general told reporters at a press conference in Cairo on Monday.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which holds a majority in Egypt’s two houses of parliament, has also denied any link to the case.
“We didn’t have anything to do with arresting or letting go of the NGO foreign workers and whatever was published that contradicts this is false,” the party’s Deputy Chairman Khairat al-Shater wrote on his Twitter account according to al-Ahram report.
Shater’s denial contradicts recent statements by U.S. Senator John McCain – Chairman of the International Republican Institute (IRI) that was one of the targeted U.S.- funded organizations operating in Egypt – in which he thanked the group for its role in lifting the travel ban on indicted foreign NGO workers.
“Last week in Cairo, we had meetings with the speaker of Parliament and other newly elected parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with Field Marshal [Hussein] Tantawi and other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. These meetings reassured us that people of goodwill in both countries were working diligently to find a positive resolution to the recent crisis,” al-Ahram report quoted McCain as saying.
The Muslim Brotherhood has blamed the government for lifting the travel ban on NGO workers.
Parliamentarian Farid Ismail, who is a member of FJP, insisted on Friday that neither the Brotherhood nor its political party helped lift the travel ban. He called on Ganzouri’s government to resign over the NGO case.
The Justice Ministry, meanwhile, denied having anything to do with lifting the travel ban. “We don’t get involved with judicial powers,” Omar al-Sherif, deputy justice minister for parliamentary affairs, was quoted as saying by al-Ahram report.
The Interior Ministry has denied responsibility as well. “The police has no relation with the departure of foreigners allied with the foreign funding case,” Minister of Interior Mohammed Ibrahim said.
Moreover, Minister of Civil Aviation Hussein Massoud denied responsibility for permitting the U.S. plane, which carried the accused NGO workers back home, to land at Cairo International Airport. He was addressing the Shura Council session when he said that he had no authority on the planes that belong to the United Nations, the diplomatic planes of heads of states and their ministers as well as the military aircrafts, according to Egypt’s Akhbar al-Youm newspaper.
Massoud said that according to international diplomatic agreements, “it was illegal for the airport authorities to prevent the U.S. plane from landing.”
As long as no one claims responsibility for lifting the travel ban, a lot of questions will remain unanswered; thus creating more chaos as time for the presidential polls nears in two months.
(Additional writing by Abeer Tayel)