Egypt pushed ahead Sunday with the trial of 43 employees of pro-democracy groups, including 16 Americans, even as Egyptian and U.S. officials tried behind the scenes to resolve the case that has caused the deepest rift in their alliance in 30 years.
In a sign those back-channel negotiations may already be bearing fruit, only Egyptian defendants attended the hearing and the judge gave no instructions to police to ensure the American and other foreign defendants attend the next hearing in two months. The 43 are charged with using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest that has roiled Egypt over the past year. None of the Americans appeared in court for the hearing.
The opening hearing of the trial quickly descended into chaos as several hundred lawyers and journalists crammed into a small courtroom east of Cairo. Presiding judge Mahmoud Mohammed Shoukry had to step out two minutes after he sat at the bench because of the crush of frantic lawyers and observers.
Shoukry said the two-month adjournment was meant to give lawyers time to read the case's files, said to be in excess of 1,500 pages, and for authorities to find interpreters to enable non-Arabic speaking defendants to follow the proceedings.
The adjournment, however, would give U.S. and Egyptian officials plenty of time to find a way out of the worst crisis in their countries' relations since the 1970s, when Egypt abandoned its partnership with the Soviet Union and began to forge close political and military ties with Washington.
The United States has threatened to cut off aid to Egypt over the crackdown on the nonprofit groups, putting at risk $1.3 billion in military aid this year and another $250 million in economic assistance. Egyptian officials claim the matter is entirely in the hands of the judiciary, but many view the U.S. threat as unacceptable meddling.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has raised the dispute 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 as the trial opened, Clinton said American officials are evaluating the latest developments. She said it was a "a fluid situation and there are a lot of moving parts."
The heavily publicized case has been linked to the turmoil roiling Egypt since an 18-day popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11 last year. It poses questions about the commitment to democracy by the Mubarak-era generals who took over from their former patron.
The American groups have trained thousands of young Egyptians on political activism and organizing, an education that played a key part in the success of last year's uprising. The generals claim they support the uprising, routinely referring to it as the "glorious revolution."
But rights groups have sharply criticized the investigation into the civil society groups and the charges, saying they are part of an orchestrated effort by the generals to silence critics and cripple pro-democracy organizations critical of their handling of what was supposed to be a transition to democracy.
Of the 43 defendants in the case, 16 are Americans, 16 are Egyptians, and others are German, Palestinian, Serb and Jordanian. Of the 16 Americans, seven have been banned from leaving Egypt.
The 43 worked for the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a group that trains journalists and a German nonprofit organization. If convicted, they could face up to five years in jail.