CAIRO - The politically charged criminal trial of 16 Americans and 27 others accused of running unauthorized and foreign-backed nonprofit groups opened chaotically yesterday and then was abruptly put off for nearly two months, all without any hint of resolution of the crisis that has threatened to upend the 30-year US alliance with Egypt.
Fourteen defendants appeared yesterday afternoon in the metal cage in the courtroom, but the accused Americans were not present. Only seven of the Americans remain in the country, including one who is the son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Egyptian authorities have barred the seven from leaving; they have taken refuge in the US Embassy for fear of arrest.
US diplomats, who had been working for days to reach some resolution, said late Saturday that they could not predict what might happen when the trial began. After less than two hours, the trial was adjourned until April 26.
After a last-minute change of venue to a Cairo suburb, lawyers, journalists, and photographers crowded the courtroom in a chaotic crush, straining to glimpse the caged defendants. The scene presented a humiliating display of captivity evocative of the images from former President Hosni Mubarak’s episodic trial.
The defendants who were present - apparently all Egyptians - pleaded not guilty to the charges. Among them was Nancy Okail, an Egyptian who directs the operations of Freedom House, a US nonprofit group chartered to promote democracy.
Another was a journalist for the Egyptian state newspaper Al Ahram, who was charged because he had worked as a mentor for apprentice journalists through the US-based International Center for Journalists. All were released without bail.
All the defendants in the cage appeared relaxed throughout the proceedings, sometimes even speaking by mobile phone with friends outside. At one point, a group of their family members and allies inside the courtroom began chanting for the ouster of the military council that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow and authorized the investigation leading to the trial.
But another contingent of lawyers had turned up to argue on behalf of Egyptians who they said had been harmed by the activities of the nonprofit groups, which officials of the military-led government have charged with stirring unrest among Egyptians. They shouted back accusations that the defendants and their supporters were agents of the United States.
US diplomats, Egyptian lawyers, and others involved said the efforts to resolve the case had foundered amid a breakdown in the lines of authority within the military-led transitional government in the final months before the generals have pledged to leave power. US officials say they have tried to find Egyptian counterparts who might intercede, but Egyptian leaders say they cannot intervene in the judicial process.
If the case is not resolved, Congress and the Obama administration have vowed to cut off the $1.55 billion in annual aid to Egypt, potentially rupturing the alliance among the United States, Egypt, and Israel that has been a linchpin of regional stability.
The seven Americans still in Egypt work for a pair of federally financed nonprofit groups with close ties to the congressional leadership: the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which are chartered to promote democracy abroad.
In court papers, Egyptian prosecutors accuse the groups of collaborating with the CIA in a campaign to destabilize Egypt and manipulate its revolution for the benefit of the United States and Israel.