By Ines bel Aiba / AFP
CAIRO: Egyptian newspapers angrily accused the ruling military on Friday of caving in to US pressure to allow foreign NGO workers, including a number of Americans, to escape trial on charges of illegal funding.
One of them also accused the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of trashing the concept of an independent judiciary, insinuating that it had strong-armed the courts into lifting a travel ban on the suspects.
Amid the growing furor, American and other foreign democracy activists flew out of Cairo on Thursday night, airport officials said, a day after the judiciary lifted the travel ban.
They traveled to Cyprus, from which they were expected to head home, possibly on Friday.
Their departure is expected to ease tensions with Washington, which had urged the SCAF to resolve the case. American officials and legislators had suggested the row could imperil $1.3 billion in US aid to its key Middle Eastern ally.
Independent daily Al-Tahrir summed up the general mood with its front-page headline: “Scandal. Under orders from the military, the judiciary freed the Americans and let them travel.”
“In only 24 hours, the military council proved to the world that any talk of judicial independence in Egypt is no more than an illusion,” the paper said.
It accused the SCAF of backing off under “pressure, negotiations and visits from American officials to Cairo.”
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said there were “very intensive discussions with the Egyptian government” and “I think we are moving toward a resolution.”
“But I don’t want to discuss it in great detail because it’s important that they know that we are continuing to push them but that we don’t necessarily put it out into the public arena yet,” she added.
The activists working for four American and a German NGO are accused, along with a number of Egyptians, of receiving illicit foreign funds and operating without licenses.
The Americans include Sam LaHood, the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and head of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Egypt.
He and several other US citizens had taken refuge inside their Cairo embassy.
The trial began on Sunday, and the defendants and their lawyers denied the charges, which they said were political.
Two days later, the three judges handling the case recused themselves under mysterious circumstances.
State news agency MENA said chief judge Mohamed Shoukry wrote to the head of the appeals court, which designates trial judges, saying they could not continue the trial.
It quoted them as using a formulation that could either mean they felt unease at the proceedings or restrictions on their work.
One of the defense lawyers, Hafez Abu Saeda, said judges often recuse themselves over a conflict of interest or a sense of pressure.
Then, on Thursday, the head of the Cairo appeals court, Abdel Moez Ibrahim, confirmed that a travel ban had been removed and that each defendant had paid LE 2 million (roughly $330,000/247,000 euros) in bail.
Reacting to all of this, pro-government daily Al-Akhbar commented on Friday that the latest developments were “strange and regrettable.”
Independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm said “the Americans have flown away … and the crisis is ablaze.”
Another independent paper, Al-Shorouq, said “bring the government and the judiciary before the people’s tribunal.”
“If the Egyptian government moved heaven and earth to defend our sovereignty against the invaders coming from these organizations who want to destroy the foundations of the state … and based on the accusations against them, why do they now let them travel?”
“How are people going to believe the government the next time it cries wolf?”
Fayza Aboul Naga, the international cooperation minister believed to have sparked the probe into the groups, has said the NGOs were part of an American conspiracy to spread chaos in Egypt.
And she insisted on Thursday that the trial would go ahead once a new judicial panel has been appointed.