Cairo lifted its travel ban on 17 foreign democracy activists working at NGOs, including Americans, allowing them to leave Egypt on Thursday via a U.S. military plane to Cyprus. The activists are on trial in Cairo for allegedly receiving illegal foreign funding, inciting protests against the interim military government, and failing to register their organizations. The NGO workers’ arrest and detention following raids on their offices caused an enormous row between Cairo and Washington, forcing U.S. officials to threaten withholding its $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. U.S. officials also said that the rift halted work on an International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt for two months.
Last Sunday, the trial for the accused got off to a strange start in Cairo. Only 14 non-American defendants showed up to court, and after the charges were formally read, the judge adjourned the trial until late April. Two days later, the three judges presiding over the case stepped down for “reasons of discomfort.”
The activists on trial stand inside a cage during their first court session.
But the row is not yet over. Egypt’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Faiza Aboul Naga, has said that the trial will continue. It is expected that new judges will now be appointed. In addition, the charges against the NGO workers — 43 people in all — have not been dropped, and the 17 that left Cairo yesterday after posting bail reportedly promised to return for their trial.
Most worrisome is what appears to be an increasing crack-down in Egypt on its human rights organizations. Since Mubarak’s ouster, the ruling military council has arrested and tried some 12,000 citizens in military tribunals. And Egyptian authorities are now trying to push through a law that would allow them to determine if an organization’s activities are acceptable, while maintaining strict rules on funding and tightening restrictions on registration.