New York Times: U.S.-Egypt in Talks to End Politically Charged Trial of Pro-democracy NGOs

February 29, 2012

U.S. and Egypt in Talks to End Prosecution of Americans
The New York Times

By Steven Lee Myers

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the United States and Egypt were engaged in “very intensive discussions” to end the criminal prosecution of staff members at four American-financed nonprofit organizations, a case that has strained relations between the countries.

The politically charged trial of the Americans opened on Sunday in Cairo, and then was adjourned for two months.

Mrs. Clinton declined to discuss the details of the negotiations, but she suggested that a resolution could be found before the State Department is faced with a decision to withhold military assistance from Egypt.

“We’ve had a lot of very tough conversations,” Mrs. Clinton said at a Senate hearing on her department’s proposed budget, “and I think we’re moving toward a resolution.”

A resolution has proved elusive, though, ever since the Egyptian authorities raided the local offices of several foreign nongovernmental organizations in late December, including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

Since then, the Egyptian authorities have charged 43 people — 16 of them Americans — with violating laws that regulate such organizations. Of the 16 Americans, 7 are still in Egypt and have been barred from leaving. Among them is Sam LaHood, the son of the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood.

The case has angered lawmakers in both countries, fueling harsh denunciations, as Egypt undergoes a slow and uneven political transition following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last year. The furor has complicated the quiet and so far unsuccessful efforts to avoid a public trial and allow the seven remaining Americans to leave.

In Cairo, the murky proceedings surrounding the case turned even murkier Tuesday night when state media reported that the judge had abruptly removed himself. The case will now start with a new judge.

Mrs. Clinton’s remarks — and the muted response from her and others after the chaotic opening of the trial — appeared intended to keep the door open for some sort of agreement. The prosecution has been cheered on by state media and by many Egyptians, who accuse the United States of interfering in their affairs.

Under new legislation adopted by Congress late last year, American aid to Egypt cannot be delivered until certain requirements are met. Officials in Washington say the criminal case would almost certainly prevent that. In the case of $1.3 billion in military assistance, including arms sales, the aid can be delivered only if Mrs. Clinton and the State Department certify that Egypt is adopting basic democratic reforms, including freedom of speech and association.

All other aid, including economic assistance and support for democracy, is subject to the department’s certification that Egypt will continue to adhere to the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. In that regard, Mrs. Clinton said on Tuesday that there was “no indication” that Egypt’s military or its new political leaders, led by the party of the Muslim Brotherhood, intended to renege on the treaty.

“In fact, we hear a continuing commitment by the authorities in Egypt,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton’s remarks appeared at odds with a recent statement by one of the Brotherhood’s leaders. They warned that Egypt considered military assistance part of the United States’ commitment to the treaty, and would review its own commitment if the assistance were to be cut.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who visited Egypt recently, told Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday that in his view the criminal charges against the organizations were absurd. “The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement after our meeting saying that the N.G.O. law in question was unjust,” he said, referring to nongovernmental organizations. “They intend to change it when they get full control of the new parliament.”

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo.