Egypt opens trial that has strained ties with US

AP Photo
AP Photo/Amr Nabil

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt went forward with a trial Sunday that has plunged relations with the U.S. into the deepest crisis in decades, prosecuting 16 Americans and 27 other employees of pro-democracy groups on charges they used foreign funds to foment unrest.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and Egyptian officials were said to be in intense discussions in an attempt to resolve the case. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has raised the matter 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, Clinton said American officials are evaluating the latest developments, adding that it’s “a fluid situation and there are a lot of moving parts.”

Sunday’s opening session in Cairo quickly descended into chaos as lawyers and journalists crammed into a small courtroom. After a brief hearing, presiding judge Mahmoud Mohammed Shoukry, who had to step out of the session at one point because of the crush of frantic lawyers and observers, adjourned the proceedings until April 26. The time will allow defense attorneys to familiarize themselves with the case and the details of behind the charges.

The investigation into the four U.S.-based nonprofits, which began in December with a raid by Egyptian security forces on the groups’ offices, has put a severe strain on Washington’s relationship with Egypt – one of its most pivotal in the Middle East. U.S. officials have threatened to cut off a $1.5 billion annual aid package if the dispute is not resolved.

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 to seek a solution.

However, the U.S. cannot be seen as pushing too hard against Egypt’s ruling military council, which is viewed as the best hope for a stable transition for a nation that is not just a regional heavyweight, but also the most populous in the Arab world and a lynchpin in Washington’s Middle East policy.

There are 43 defendants in the case – 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians, as well as Germans, Palestinians, Serbs and Jordanians.

At least thirteen of the Egyptians appeared in court for Saturday’s hearing, standing in a metal cage, as is customary in Egyptian trials.