The choice of Egypt’s military rulers to escalate a row with the United States over the headline-grabbing saga of foreign nongovernmental organisations has backfired after they eventually succumbed to relentless pressure from their key ally.
The American NGO staffers face several charges, including operating in Egypt without authorisation, illegally raising funds in the US and using the funds for illicit purposes. The saga has put a strain on usually strong US-Egypt relations, but an abrupt decision by an anonymous Egyptian entity to lift the travel ban made it possible for the foreign nationals to fly back home on Thursday.
The new twist comes in stark contrast to what originally looked like a rigid stance from the government, which infuriated the US administration after Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri vowed that Egypt “would not yield to threats over the annual aid it receives from the US.”
Whether the aid threat played a role in the new development remains uncertain, but Egypt’s inability to continue the battle neck and neck with the US is now clear-cut.
The judge presiding over the case suddenly recused himself Wednesday without disclosing why. This left pundits, lawmakers and many ordinary people with no option but to believe that judicial independence was violated by authorities.
"The departure of the Americans who were initially banned from travelling is the most dangerous thing that happened after the revolution," MP Akram El-Shaer, a member in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said in a television interview.
"It implies that the judiciary is being influenced. The government must now explain why this happened.
"If it declines to do so, then it should be disbanded. The People’s Assembly will summon the prime minister for questioning over the matter."
The Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan described the Americans’ departure as a "catastrophe,"and echoed El-Shaer’s demand for an explanation.
"I saw [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton saying her country is pressuring the Egyptian government into letting the Americans leave. This means that pressure has affected the independence of the judiciary," he concluded.
Pro-democracy activists launched a scathing attack against Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), when authorities raided many NGO offices in Cairo in December. The raids were perceived worldwide as a crackdown on democracy and human rights.
The NGOs seemed to be paying the price for exposing violations of human rights and freedom of speech in a country yearning for democracy following Egypt's revolution in 2011 that ended the 30-year rule of autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak.
Even if the US could intervene, the preferred process is simply a un unbiased investigation and due process.
“NGO trials in Egypt: Erratic due process is blatantly irreconcilable with independent judiciary and genuine democracy,” former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei, a staunch SCAF critic, said on the micro-blogging website Twitter.
Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, was one of the Egyptians targeted in the case, but he heavily criticised any attempt to affect judicial inquiries.
"The nongovernmental organizations must oppose any interference in the work of the judiciary, even if that comes at their expense. The NGOs should not be declared innocent unless there is a ruling from an independent judiciary," he said.
"The pressure on the judiciary in that case means it is not independent. The judge stepping down also means that some judges in Egypt are independent and others are not."
SCAF used to warn of alleged foreign schemes to undermine the state, saying such plots threaten to further destabilise the country in the wake of the revolution.
The military council took the matter to a new level when it decided to confront the US in a sudden move that Mubarak would never have thought to make, even during the lowest points of bilateral relations during his era.
Despite repeated threats by the Congress lawmakers to review the annual $1.3 billion US military aid, the Egyptian government seemed determined not to soften its stance, straining diplomatic ties between both countries in the process.
But the US pressure eventually paid dividends, giving it the upper hand and proving that the defiant Egyptian attitude was merely occasional, or rather unwise.
The US gained ground.
Not only did it oblige Egyptian authorities to release the Americans who are involved in the case, but it also warned that such a decision is not sufficient.
"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was quoted as saying by Reuters.
"We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
Human rights group Amnesty International shared the same view, calling on Egyptian authorities to "end their attacks on civil society."
"The Egyptian authorities must not use this heavily-publicised case to distract international attention from the situation faced by human rights organisations in Egypt," asserted Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the Amnesty International Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"When the international attention is gone, human rights activists in Egypt will bear the brunt of this offensive, both in court, and under the threat of an even more repressive law on associations."