A diplomatic crisis between the United States and Egypt over the investigation into US-funded pro-democracy groups has simmered down. A deal was struck last week that allowed six US citizens facing prosecution — and a travel ban — to finally leave Egypt on a private plane. But their departure has only sparked a larger political scandal within Egypt.
For weeks, the suspects with foreign-funded NGOs had been described in the Egyptian media as agents of America and Israel, with a hidden agenda to stir up chaos. Then, suddenly, they were allowed to fly out of the country.
On Tuesday, the minister who pushed the case against the NGOs from the start, Faiza Abou el-Naga spoke to the parliament. And she found herself on the defensive. Abou el-Naga denied responsibility for letting the foreigners leave the country. One by one, Egypt's power brokers have rushed to do the same. The Egyptian military, the prime minister, the judiciary, the interior ministry and the Muslim Brotherhood have all distanced themselves from the decision to lift the travel ban on the foreign defendants.
Gamal Eid runs the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. He said this was a fabricated case from the beginning.
"The government wanted to tarnish pro-democracy groups as a whole," he said. "And they have succeeded. But it's like magic that turns against the magician."
The perception now is that the Egyptian government caved in to US political pressure. Congress had threatened to cut off $1.5 billion in US aid over this dispute. In the end, Egypt backed down. It cut a deal with the Americans behind closed doors, and — many Egyptians feel — it has damaged the independence of the judiciary by letting politics trump the law.
The legal case goes back to December, when Egyptian security forces raided the offices of several high-profile NGOs. 43 employees were eventually charged with accepting illegal foreign funding. Among them were 16 Americans. They were initially banned from leaving Egypt, before being allowed to travel after more than a month.
But at least 16 Egyptians still face possible prosecution. Among them is Yehia Ghanem. He agreed to take a position with the International Center for Journalists.
"At least, on my part, the program that I was going to supervise it and to be its advisor hasn't even started yet. So, we were being tried on intentions rather than actions," Ghanem said.
Ghanem is a 24-year veteran with Egypt's semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper. He said some of his colleagues have turned their backs on him. He worries about his reputation. But Ghanem said there are bigger issues at stake.
"I believe that we in Egypt deserve a better media. And so, I believe in the importance of the work that I was just about to do and I'm determined to carry on with what I intended to do."
And Ghanem said he's not ashamed of signing on with a foreign-funded organization to help train journalists in Egypt.
"For moments, I thought that some of the government officials are just about to declare bellum sacrum — declaring holy war — against the west. I hope that the public now has begun to realize that it was all fake."
Attorney Negad El-Borai represents some of the Egyptian defendants in the case. He said there's a lot of blame to go around, but he's not happy about the way the US handled the situation. He said American officials were impatient. They pushed to get their citizens out of the country, but failed to explain how and why they were funding pro-democracy groups in Egypt in the first place.
"I think that it was a tragedy," El-Borai said. "And the American reputation in Egypt will suffer for a long, long time after this."
El-Borai said Egyptians are finding it harder to believe that the US has Egypt's best interests at heart.
"You must think about the reaction of the parliament, the political power, the press. You must think about the civil society," he implored. "You must think of the destiny of the other defendants, how people now view them. It's not everything or nothing."
El-Borai said American officials have not been effective advocates for US policy in Egypt as this crisis has played out. He said the Egyptian public now believes the worst about the Americans who fled… namely, that they ARE foreign spies and that their Egyptian colleagues are guilty as well. The legal case is expected to go forward, but only after new judges are appointed. The previous ones stepped down before the travel ban was lifted.
Faiza Abou el-Naga is the Egyptian government minister who pushed the case against foreign-funded NGOs. She went on TV to deny responsibility for letting the defendants leave the country. (Photo: Matthew Bell)
Negad El-Borai is a veteran human rights lawyer in Egypt. He says the US government has handled this situation "like a bull in a china shop." (Photo: Matthew Bell)