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Anger overflows in Egypt after foreign NGO workers leave

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CAIRO — Egyptian authorities became the target of national wrath on Friday, the day after American and other foreign pro-democracy workers were whisked out of the country in a chartered plane to ease a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Cairo.

After a months-long state media campaign depicting the non-governmental organization workers as agents of unrest, a broad array of youth groups, lawmakers and political leaders accused Egyptian officials of whipping up and politicizing a case against foreign and domestic NGOs only to bow to U.S. pressure.

The case has raised questions both in Cairo and in Washington about how much influence the United States has over Egypt’s ruling generals, in a country that gets $1.3 billion in military aid each year from the United States.

The activists who led last year’s successful revolution to topple Hosni Mubarak had been sharply critical of the United States for its ties with the authoritarian regime. Since the revolution, most non-governmental organizations have worked to promote further democratic change, over objections from Egypt’s transitional government.

But even activists and other political figures who are strong advocates of democracy say the military leaders had badly mishandled the case: first by barring the foreign workers from leaving the country; then permitting them to leave after they paid millions of dollars in bail. The critics warn that the case could compromise the integrity of Egypt’s judicial system.

“Top governmental officials have tried to make this out to be a battle of dignity with the United States and vowed that Egypt would not kneel,” an advocacy group called the National Association for Change said Friday. “This is a national catastrophe on all levels that took the form of the humiliating prostration of top officials following American dictations and the reproduction of the policy of dependence that the Mubarak regime used to follow.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and erstwhile presidential candidate, called the move a “fatal blow to democracy.”

Critics of the case don’t necessarily support the underlying case against the NGOs but see the outcome as an affront to rule of law from officials who had promised to refrain from Mubarak's back-door dealing.

The months-long standoff between Egypt and the United States began after brazen raids on the Cairo offices of NGOs including the U.S.-backed National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

The investigation led to a trial that began Sunday, although none of the foreign defendants appeared in court. The panel of three judges resigned Tuesday under murky circumstances. The lead judge, Mohammed Shokry, said Friday that the lifting of the travel ban had been illegal, according to state television. When reached by phone, he refused to comment.

On Friday, two other judges who acted as prosecutors in the case also said they would resign in protest, raising the possibility that the entire case against the foreign workers would be dropped, according to the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm. “I feel insulted, and I feel that everything we did was lost over a political decision,” Judge Ashraf Ashmawy told the Egyptian newspaper.

“There are going to be very serious repercussions about the way the situation for the American nationals was resolved,” said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch. “It’s not good for public confidence: for it to have gone to court and then lifting the travel ban in this way. Confidence in the judiciary was shaky at best.”

On Friday, the Muslim Brotherhood, which oversees the most powerful political party in Egypt, issued a statement saying it had no involvement in the case or the decision to lift the travel ban, distancing itself from the unpopular decision. The statement came after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was “encouraged by the constructive role” the group played.

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