Only six of the seven Americans who were facing charges and who were still in Egypt got on the flight Thursday, according to an NGO official familiar with the case. The official said Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute chose not to board the plane.
The news was greeted with relief in Washington after months in which threats on both sides had left the U.S.-Egyptian relationship in disarray.
Although the immediate crisis involving the American nationals was resolved, U.S. lawmakers and officials pointed to a raft of lingering issues that could keep Egypt and the United States locked in a political standoff for weeks to come.
The charges against the pro-democracy workers remain in place. Egyptian employees of the foreign NGOs are still in Egypt and facing the same charges. The trial has been pushed back, and it is unclear what will happen if the American and other foreign pro-democracy workers do not return.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the United States is pleased that Egypt decided to lift the travel ban, but she noted that the workers’ departure doesn’t resolve the legal cases or the broader problem of Egypt’s crackdown on NGOs.
“We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOS in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process,” she said.
One of the biggest questions still looming involves the $1.5 billion in U.S. funding earmarked this year for Egypt — most of it for the military — that could be withheld over U.S. concerns.
Under conditions imposed by Congress, the Obama administration must certify that Egypt is taking specific steps toward democracy in areas such as freedom of speech and due process before disbursing aid. That is a matter that U.S. officials and members of Congress noted repeatedly Thursday involves much more than the immediate fate of the NGO workers.
Crackdown on NGOs
The crisis began when Egypt barred the Americans and at least two European citizens from leaving after authorities raided the Cairo offices of several foreign-funded NGOs in December. Egyptian authorities accused the groups of operating illegally, sowing unrest and working toward a U.S. plot to destroy Egypt. Facing charges are 43 NGO workers, including at least 16 Americans, some of whom had already left the country.
In addition to Americans, those on the plane Thursday included Norwegian, Serbian, Palestinian and German NGO workers. At least three of the Americans, including Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy, and the other foreigners had been sheltered by their own countries’ missions.