CAIRO — Seven Americans employed by pro-democracy groups in Egypt who have been under criminal investigation will be allowed to leave the country, Egyptian lawyers involved in the case said Wednesday, suggesting that Washington and Cairo are close to resolving a tense diplomatic crisis that threatened the alliance between the two nations.
Egypt barred the Americans and at least two European citizens from leaving after authorities raided the Cairo offices of several foreign-funded non-governmental organizations in December. Egyptian officials accused the groups of operating illegally, sowing unrest and working to carry out a U.S. plot to destroy Egypt.
The investigation triggered threats from outraged U.S. lawmakers who threatened to cut off the $1.3 billion Egypt gets in U.S. military aid each year. U.S. officials have been involved in intense discussions with the Egyptian government in recent days over the impasse.
Hafez Abu Saada, a lawyer representing some of the 43 defendants, said Wednesday that the travel ban would be lifted but only after the foreign defendants each paid about $332,000 in bail.
But U.S. officials declined to confirm that the travel ban had been lifted, and there was no evidence that the broader case would be dismissed. Nor was it clear whether the Egyptian government might be persuaded to issue operating licenses to the groups — including the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House — something it has steadfastly declined to do in the past.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday in an appearance on Capitol Hill that she hoped the ban would be lifted. “We will continue to work toward that,” she said, adding that “the reporting is encouraging, but we have no confirmation.”
Clinton has said the situation has been made more difficult by the transition that Egypt is going through after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as president. “They don’t have an executive that would have such authority to be able to determine what is and is not the policy of the new Egyptian government,” she told the BBC in a weekend interview.
The military leaders who took control of the country in February 2011 have pledged to transition to civilian rule by the end of June. On Wednesday, just before the news about the NGO case broke, officials announced that the presidential elections would be held May 23 and 24, with a runoff to be held, if needed, June 16 and 17 — a timetable that allows the generals to meet their pledge.
Many Egyptian NGO workers have seen the prosecution of pro-democracy groups as an ominous sign of the prospects for fundamental democratic reform. Human rights groups and NGO workers say the case has effectively criminalized the promotion of democracy and human rights work.
The Egyptian government has accused the groups of working illegally in Egypt, by accepting foreign funding and working with political parties. While the groups have operated without a license, they argue that they have worked transparently and have repeatedly tried to get government permission for their work.
At least 16 of the defendants are Americans, and seven of them remain in Egypt. They work for either IRI or NDI, and include IRI’s Egypt director, Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood and other IRI employees have sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
IRI officials did not respond to queries about the case Wednesday, and NDI officials declined to comment.
Abu Saada, a human rights lawyer who represents three of the Egyptians from Freedom House who are charged in the case, said that while the Americans could leave the country if they paid bail, the broader case “is still going on.”
Negad el Borai, another lawyer who represents IRI and Freedom House, confirmed in a tweet that the travel ban will be lifted if the foreigners pay bail.
The trial opened Sunday, with 13 Egyptian defendants — and none of the foreign defendants — appearing in a chaotic courtroom. The judges then adjourned the case until April 26. On Tuesday, the three judges overseeing the case pulled out of the proceedings. The case is expected to be reassigned to a new court within the week.
On Wednesday, former U.S. officials and human rights advocates worried that the crisis might not fully pass, even if all the U.S. citizens are allowed to leave Cairo.
Michelle Dunne, a former diplomat and Middle East specialist who worked for the State Department and the National Security Council, noted that the lifting of the travel ban would still leave the NGOs’ non-U.S. employees facing trial on criminal charges.
“We don't know if this is a resolution to the larger crisis or not,” said Dunne, who heads the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. “Lifting the travel ban would be a good thing and a de-escalating step, but we’ll have to see if they continue to prosecute Egyptians and others left behind.”
Human rights groups already were pressing the Obama administration not to abandon Egypt's civil society movement in the name of easing tensions with Egyptian leaders.
“The U.S. government must continue to make clear to the Egyptian government that independent, non-governmental organizations should be able to carry out their essential activities free from harassment, defamation in the state-run media and politically motivated criminal investigations,” said Neil Hicks, international policy adviser for Human Rights First.
After a rigorous state media campaign depicting the NGO workers as spies and agents of foreign countries, many Egyptians now see the case as a test of national sovereignty and would probably see its dismissal as a sign that Egypt had caved to pressure from the United States.
Warrick reported from Washington. Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.