CAIRO (AP) — Egypt pushed ahead Sunday with the trial of 43 employees of pro-democracy groups, including 16 Americans, even as Egyptian and U.S. officials tried behind the scenes to resolve the case that has caused the deepest rift in their alliance in 30 years.
In a sign those back-channel negotiations may already be bearing fruit, only Egyptian defendants attended the hearing and the judge gave no instructions to police to ensure the American and other foreign defendants attend the next hearing in two months. The 43 are charged with using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest that has roiled Egypt over the past year. None of the Americans appeared in court for the hearing.
The United States has threatened to cut off aid to Egypt over the crackdown on the nonprofit groups, putting at risk $1.3 billion in military aid this year and another $250 million in economic assistance. Egyptian officials claim the matter is entirely in the hands of the judiciary, but many view the U.S. threat as unacceptable meddling.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has raised the dispute twice in person with Egypt's foreign minister — once in London and once in Tunisia — in recent days, according to a senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the discussions.
Speaking to reporters in Morocco on Sunday as the trial opened, Clinton said American officials are evaluating the latest developments. She said it was a "a fluid situation and there are a lot of moving parts."
President Barack Obama has urged Egypt's military rulers to drop the investigation, and high-level officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Republican Sen. John McCain, have flown in to Cairo recently to seek a solution. However, the U.S. cannot be seen as pushing too hard against the ruling generals, who are viewed as the best hope for a stable transition for a nation that is a regional heavyweight and has been a lynchpin of Washington's Middle East policy for three decades.
The heavily publicized case has been linked to the turmoil roiling Egypt since an 18-day popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11 last year. It poses questions about the commitment to democracy by the Mubarak-era generals who took over from their former patron.
The American groups have trained thousands of young Egyptians on political activism and organizing, an education that played a key part in the success of last year's uprising. The generals claim they support the uprising, routinely referring to it as the "glorious revolution."
But rights groups have sharply criticized the investigation into the civil society groups and the charges, saying they are part of an orchestrated effort by the generals to silence critics and cripple pro-democracy organizations critical of their handling of what was supposed to be a transition to democracy.
"The case is politically motivated to start with, but it is in court now and that means justice will take its course," said prominent rights lawyer and activist Hafez Abu Saedah, who represents three Egyptian defendants. "They are young men and women who sought employment in international organizations and did not know anything about funds and organization," he told reporters at the courthouse.
Of the 43 defendants in the case, 16 are Americans, 16 are Egyptians, and others are German, Palestinian, Serb and Jordanian. Of the 16 Americans, seven have been banned from leaving Egypt, among them Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The 43 worked for the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a group that trains journalists and a German nonprofit organization. If convicted, they could face up to five years in jail.
The timing of the crackdown raised questions about the military's motives, coming only months before the generals have promised to hand over power to a civilian authority by the end of June. It could reflect concern that the pro-democracy movement will push for prosecuting the generals after they hand over power or force civilian oversight over the military's affairs that would undercut their vast financial and political power.
The opening hearing of the trial quickly descended into chaos as several hundred lawyers and journalists crammed into a small courtroom east of Cairo. Presiding judge Mahmoud Mohammed Shoukry had to step out two minutes after he sat at the bench because of the crush of frantic lawyers and observers.
Shoukry said the two-month adjournment was meant to give lawyers time to read the case's files, said to be in excess of 1,500 pages, and for authorities to find interpreters to enable non-Arabic speaking defendants to follow the proceedings.
The adjournment, however, would give U.S. and Egyptian officials plenty of time to find a way out of the worst crisis in their countries' relations since the 1970s, when Egypt abandoned its partnership with the Soviet Union and began to forge close political and military ties with Washington.
Under Mubarak's 29-year rule, Egypt and nonprofit groups, particularly those advocating democracy, have been at sharp odds over questions of registration, funding and their activity, with authorities relentlessly seeking to control them or, at least, place them under close scrutiny.
A new and less stringent law to govern the work of these groups is now being drafted in parliament and may be adopted by the legislature by the time the proceedings resume in April, something that could provide legal basis for leniency toward the defendants.
None of the defendants are in detention. The 13 Egyptians who showed up for Sunday's hearing came to court voluntarily. They looked relaxed and spent much of their time in the defendants' cage chatting and laughing before the start of the hearing.
The prosecution maintains that, between them, the five groups illegally received about $50 million in funds, most of which in the months that followed the ouster a year ago of longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. It claims that the groups were engaged in illegal polling, political activism training and other activity without the knowledge of the approval of authorities.
Their activity, prosecutor Abdullah Yassin told the court, amounted to an "infringement of the sovereignty of the state of Egypt."
The case's ties to the political unrest in the country was on display during and after the hearing.
A group of lawyers were in the courtroom as "citizens" seeking compensation for the "damage" they endured as a result of the groups' activity. One of them, Osman el-Hefnawy, spoke of their plot to break up Egypt and of a "conspiracy against the whole of Egypt." Shoukry, the judge, was impatient with the lawyers, demanding that they submit their requests in writing. When they kept interrupting him, he yelled: "Not another word!" At another point, he threatened to arrest them for disorderly conduct. "Am I speaking in French?" he yelled again.
Chants by activists of "down, down with military rule" rang out at the end of the hearing. Others in the courtroom chanted "long live the Egyptian army."
Outside the court, several dozen Islamists staged a noisy demonstration to demand that the Americans on trial be sent home in exchange for the freedom of Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric serving a life sentence for being the spiritual leader of men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.