No confidence motion likely
The furore occasioned by the lifting of a travel ban on American defendants in the ongoing case against NGOs accused of receiving illegal foreign funding threatens to engulf the government of Kamal El-Ganzouri, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky
In a heated session on Sunday the People's Assembly moved closer towards a vote of no- confidence in Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri's government. The spectre of political deadlock is looming with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) looking adamant to keep El-Ganzouri in office until the end of presidential elections.
Egyptian media reported that SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had held talks with El-Ganzouri and People's Assembly Speaker Saad El-Katatni in an attempt to ease tensions.
Matters came to a head when MPs began questioning three members of cabinet, Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, Minister of Justice Adel Abdel-Hamid and Minister of Civil Aviation Hussein Massoud, over their roles in the lifting of the travel ban placed on American defendants in the ongoing NGO foreign funding case.
Massoud told parliament that the airplane on which the foreign defendants left was a civil craft owned by the US Department of State and not the US military as some Egyptian reports had said. He added that the plane had Egyptian government authorisation to land at Cairo Airport.
"Allowing the passengers to board the plane and leave Egypt was the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior, not the Minister of Civil Aviation," Massoud told a group of MPs demanding he resign.
MPs accused Abul-Naga, a cabinet survivor from the Mubarak era, of deceiving public opinion and compromising judicial independence.
"My job is to manage foreign aid coming to Egypt, and to make sure it enters the country according to the law," Abul-Naga told the People's Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee.
She added that her involvement in the NGO funding case ended when it was passed to a judicial committee for investigation in June last year.
In a symbolic gesture the People's Assembly voted to refuse future US aid, including the $1.3 billion that the army receives each year.
"I wish members of the US Congress could listen to you now so they come to understand this is the parliament of the revolution and as such refuses any breach of Egypt's sovereignty or interference in its affairs," El-Katatni told MPs.
Commentators point out that the refusal of US money by MPs carries no legal weight. Any final decision is up to the SCAF.
MPs also demanded the return of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh", a former leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya who is serving a life sentence in the US.
The 43 defendants in the NGO trial includes 16 Americans, nine of whom were already outside the country when the case was referred to trial.
On 28 February Abdel-Moezz Ibrahim, head of the Court of Appeal, announced that the travel ban on foreign defendants had been lifted. The next day six Americans left the country. They were joined on the US plane by seven other defendants holding German, Palestinian and Serbian passports. One American remained in Egypt at his own request.
The four US-based NGOs implicated in the case posted nearly $5 million in bail. The Americans were among 43 indicted employees of the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House, International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and the German Konrad Adeneur Foundation.
The departure of the foreign defendants came a day after the panel of judges, presided over by Mahmoud Shukri, recused themselves from the case two days after the opening session. Judicial sources claim Ibrahim had asked Shukri to lift the travel ban and Shukri refused.
The case was subsequently referred to a new panel, reopening on 8 March at Cairo Criminal Court presided over by Makram Awwad. The court immediately adjourned the case until 10 April, and ordered the prosecutor-general to summon the American defendants who had left the country to attend the next session.
Fifteen defendants attended the trial, 14 Egyptians and the single American, Robert Becker, who opted to remain in Egypt.
Lawyers representing the defendants requested that the trial be referred to the Misdemeanours Court.
"The defendants only violated Egyptian laws by working without government approval, and misdemeanour may carry a fine but not a jail term," Negad El-Borai, representing Freedom House employees, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"There are more than 35,000 Egyptians and 83 foreign NGOs, including 23 American ones, operating in Egypt without a problem. Egyptian civil society, with 200 years of history, is flourishing," said Abul- Naga in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Friday.
She added that Egyptian judicial actions were not initiated to harm relations between Egypt and the United States, nor did they seek to curtail civil society. Their only purpose was to "implement Egyptian laws that require all NGOs to register before starting operations".