CAIRO – Egypt on Wednesday lifted a travel ban on seven Americans who were on trial with 36 other civil society workers on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds, the first sign that a case that’s chilled Egypt-U.S. relations may be nearing a resolution.
The lifting of the travel ban signaled to Egyptian legal experts that U.S. officials had succeeded in persuading the country’s ruling military council to back off and mend bilateral relations, which have frayed since the ouster a year ago of then-President Hosni Mubarak, one of Washington’s closest Arab allies.
Wednesday’s move came a day after a judge who’d been presiding over the case withdrew amid rumors of political pressure that compromised his independence. Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Shoukry expressed “unease” about continuing the trial, according to the state news agency MENA.
News reports quoted U.S. and Egyptian officials as saying the case wasn’t fully dismissed, however, with Egyptian defendants still on trial and the Americans required to post more than $300,000 each in “bail” before leaving the country.
Transitional authorities sought to use the case as an assertion of sovereignty, legal analysts said, but overplayed their hand and ended up looking as deferential to the West as ever. Although it’s unclear whether charges will be dropped, the Americans are free to leave the country, making any sentence unenforceable, said retired Justice Ahmed Mekky, a former head of Alexandria’s Court of Cassation.
The case began with raids in December on 17 offices of U.S. and Egyptian nongovernmental organizations, on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and failing to properly register with the government.
By the time the matter went to trial Sunday, Washington lawmakers had threatened to retaliate by cutting Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion in military aid, and state media continued to smear the American defendants as agents who were working secretly to promote U.S.-friendly agendas.
There are 16 Americans among the 43 defendants, but only seven are thought to be in Egypt. Three of them made the extraordinary move of holing up inside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to avoid arrest, including Sam LaHood, the head of Egyptian programs for the International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Pentagon’s top general and several U.S. lawmakers raised concern about the matter and said they’d spoken privately with Egyptian officials to urge a resolution.