Passing the buck: Who lifted the travel ban on indicted foreign NGO workers?

Ekram Ibrahim, Tuesday 6 Mar 2012

A range of actors – from Egypt's ruling military council and the Muslim Brotherhood to Aboul-Naga and government ministries – wash their hands of the decision to lift a travel ban on NGO workers facing trial

Some of the fourteen Egyptian activists who were accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

Following the mysterious departure on Thursday of foreign non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers facing trial, different state institutions and political parties deny being behind the decision to lift the travel ban and interfering in judicial independence.

Meanwhile, Egyptians continue to look for a party to blame, as a sense of discontent permeates the media and the public.

After Egyptian security forces raided several NGO offices in December, charges were brought against 43 NGO workers in February. The workers – who include 16 Americans – face charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and working in the country without licensing.

Head of the District Court Mahmoud Shokri stepped down two days after the first hearing of the trial, reportedly after receiving a phone call that left him feeling "uncomfortable."

However, Judge Abdel-Moez Ibrahim, head of Cairo's Appeal Court, told state television on Thursday that he asked Judge Shokri to recuse himself from the case because Shokri's son works with a US-based institution that has connections to the US Embassy. Shokri denies being forced to withdraw.

Judge Ashraf Ashmawy, a prosecutor in the trial, recused himself from the case after what he described as "unacceptable interference" in the Egyptian judicial system. He has promised to inform Justice Minister Mohamed Manei of his reasons for withdrawing.

A new panel of judges has been appointed to investigate the charges after the previous three-judge panel withdrew from the case last week citing “reasons of discomfort.”

On 6 February, a group of 13 foreign NGO workers, including Americans, left Egypt on a US plane. This came after an unnamed Egyptian judge made the rush decision to lift a travel ban placed on them after they were accused of working in Egypt and raising US funds without appropriate government authorisation. 

International Cooperation Minister Fayza Aboul-Naga, the public face of the NGO funding case, has claimed that she did know that the travel ban on the indicted foreigners had been lifted, and that she only found out afterwards. She said that the international cooperation ministry was also not involved in the decision.

During the first session of the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of Parliament) on Tuesday Aboul-Naga said, “I would do what I have done with the NGOs case again as a responsible Egyptian citizen, who is committed to the good of the country."

The only reaction from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was during a press conference on Monday. General Taher Abdulla said that "the two states are bound by political relations. But the judicial system is the only entity responsible for the foreign funding case and the military council did not impose any decision on them."

Moreover, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which has the largest portion of seats in Egypt's Parliament, has denied its association with the case. Khairat El-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy chairman, denied that his group has anything to do with lifting the travel ban.

"We didn’t have anything to do with arresting or letting go of the NGO foreign workers and whatever was published that contradicts this is false," El-Shater wrote on his Twitter account.

This contradicts recent statements by US senator John McCain – chairman of the International Republican Institute that was among the targeted US-government funded organisations in Egypt – in which he thanked the group for its role in lifting the travel ban on indicted foreign NGO workers.

McCain said, "Last week in Cairo, we had meetings with the speaker of Parliament and other newly elected parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with Field Marshal Tantawi and other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. These meetings reassured us that people of goodwill in both countries were working diligently to find a positive resolution to the recent crisis."

Several FJP figures have criticised the US Administration and accused it of trying to tarnish their image.

The Brotherhood has placed responsibility for the decision on the current Egyptian Cabinet. FJP parliamentarian Farid Ismail asserted on Friday that neither the Brotherhood nor its political arm the FJP helped lift the travel ban. 

Ismail also insisted Kamal El-Ganzouri's government should resign for allowing the accused foreign nationals to leave the country.

For its part, the Ministry of Justice has also denied having a hand in lifting the travel ban. "We don’t get involved with judicial powers," said Omar El-Sherif, deputy justice minister for parliamentary affairs.

Furthermore, the interior ministry has denied responsibility. "The police have no relation with the departure of foreigners allied with the foreign funding case," said Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim.

Hussein Hassan, minister of civil aviation, also denied having any knowledge of whether the US plane had landed in Egypt before or after the decision to lift the travel ban was taken. He did say though that it landed in the airport at 2:18pm on Thursday.

With these unanswered questions and no-one claiming responsibility for the decision to lift the travel ban, the NGO case continues to strike a nerve in Egypt's political and judicial arena as well as general public.

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