CAIRO — American pro-democracy workers who had been forced to stay in Egypt for weeks under criminal charges left the country Thursday night on a chartered plane and landed in Cyprus, easing tensions heightened during a months-long diplomatic fight between Cairo and Washington.
The travel ban, which also included activists from other countries, was lifted after the nongovernmental organizations they worked for paid bail of several million dollars in a deal struck with Egyptian officials.
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.
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.
The International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the affected NGOs, issued a statement Thursday welcoming the lifting of the travel ban but noting that in addition to the Americans and other foreigners, several Egyptians who worked for the United States and foreign NGOs are still in the country and facing charges. Fourteen Egyptians are being prosecuted, according to Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, or MENA.
Charles Dunne, the Middle East director for Freedom House, which is contesting criminal charges against four of its Egyptian workers, said Thursday’s development was welcome but incomplete.
“If the Americans get out, that’s terrific, but we also hope it’s just the start of something more that happens,” he said. “But there’s still a lot unresolved. You have 400 Egyptian organizations caught up in this, too, they have not yet been charged, but that certainly could be coming. What happens to the work of civil society as a whole in Egypt?”
Also in question is whether any of departed NGO workers facing charges can ever return to Egypt. Dunne, who frequently works in Egypt but currently lives and works in the Washington region, was charged in absentia and labeled a fugitive.
“It’s not clear if and when any of us can return,” he said.
Nuland said Thursday that the State Department had sent legal experts to Egypt in recent weeks to work with the judiciary there to find a solution to the case, adding that the Egyptian judiciary had agreed to waive the travel ban if bail was posted.
“None of these people who have departed were in custody. None were subject to arrest warrant,” she said, adding that the legal case remains in place and that whether those charged will return is “an issue each one of them will have to make a decision about.”
The trial began Sunday, but none of the foreign NGO workers charged attended the hearing. On Tuesday, the three judges overseeing the case withdrew abruptly without explanation, and on Wednesday, Egyptian officials reportedly agreed to lift the travel ban after intense negotiations with U.S. officials.
Bail for the defendants was set at 2 million Egyptian pounds (about $332,000) each, according to judicial officials and defense lawyers involved in the case. Nuland declined to confirm the amount paid for the Americans and said that the NGOs wrote the checks and that the U.S. government did not contribute.
“There were no bribes paid. This was paid by the NGOs,” Nuland said. But she acknowledged that, in general, the U.S. government provides much of the NGOs’ funding.
Many of the Egyptian NGO workers under investigation said Thursday that they want the court proceedings to continue and that they hope to be acquitted of all charges. Nancy Okail, the Egypt director for D.C.-based Freedom House, said the political nature of the case has compromised the reputation of Egypt’s judicial system, which had been widely seen as relatively independent.
Although she is happy that the Americans and foreigners involved in the case have been allowed to leave, she said, she predicted a backlash from Egyptians who see the development as the executive interfering in the judiciary and caving to U.S. pressure.
“Taking a political case to court is actually insulting the Egyptian judiciary,” Okail said, accusing Fayza Abou el-Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation who had spearheaded the crackdown on the NGOs, of using the courts for political ends.
“The Egyptian judiciary looks pathetic and weak, and this is a slap in the face to every judge who called for independence,” she said.
Naga, a Hosni Mubarak-era holdover, vowed Thursday that the trial would go on, according to MENA. A senior judge was quoted by the state-run Ahram newspaper as saying that a new trial date is expected to be set Saturday.
Wan reported from Washington. Correspondent Ernesto Londoño, in Cairo, contributed to this report.