Egypt's rulers face backlash after lifting travel ban on Americans

Egypt had portrayed its case against American NGOs as necessary to thwart foreign agents intent on harming the country. Now angry Egyptians say their rulers have caved to US pressure.

By , Correspondent

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    In this Feb. 26 file photo, Egyptian protesters chant anti-military ruling slogans during a trial of employees of pro-democracy groups charged with using foreign funds to foment unrest in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt has lifted a travel ban on Feb. 29 for seven Americans charged with fomenting unrest by working for illegally funded pro-democracy groups, signaling an end to the worst crisis in Egypt-U.S. relations in 30 years.
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Egypt’s apparent decision to lift a travel ban on seven Americans charged in the prosecution of US pro-democracy organizations could ease the worst US-Egypt diplomatic crisis in three decades. But it does not resolve key US concerns, and it opens Egypt’s military rulers to public criticism that they bowed to American pressure.

“They are serving the Americans, just like Mubarak before them did,” says Mohamed Adel, a Cairo security guard, of Egypt's military rulers. “If these Americans were hurting Egypt, they should stand in court and face justice, not run away with the help of the Army.”

Egypt’s rulers had whipped up nationalist sentiment by portraying the accused as foreign agents intent on harming Egypt, and launched a trial against 43 employees – including 16 Americans. But after more than two months of pressure from the Obama administration, and threats from congressmen to cut America's annual aid to Egypt – including $1.3 billion in military aid – Egypt's military-led government appears to have relented.

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Hafez Abu Saeda, a lawyer involved in the case, says that an Egyptian court had decided to lift the travel ban yesterday for all foreigners charged in the case, and local media reported that a US military plane was waiting at the Cairo airport to transport the Americans out of Egypt.

Unresolved issues

The case has not been closed, however. An official from one of the American NGOs said today that the organization has not been informed officially of any change in the travel ban status. And an Egyptian newspaper reported that airport authorities prevented a British man connected to the case, though not charged, from leaving Egypt today.

In addition, Mr. Abu Saeda says the Americans were required to sign a statement saying they would return for the remainder of the trial, and pay more than $330,000 each in bail. And while the judge assigned to the case abruptly recused himself after the first hearing Sunday, Abu Saeda – who represents some of the Egyptian employees charged in the case – says he expects another judge will be assigned, and the charges still stand.

Allowing the Americans to leave while pursuing the case against the civil society organizations and their Egyptian employees who remain does not resolve an issue that has put US aid to Egypt at risk. US officials have said they could not meet new conditions set by Congress for releasing $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt while the case, which officials have called a politically motivated crackdown on civil society, is ongoing.

It is unclear how that would change even with the Americans absent.

Who was targeted

The prosecution has targeted four American organizations and one German group, accusing them of operating without a license and receiving foreign funds illegally. Sixteen Egyptian employees were charged, as well as foreigners including Europeans, Palestinians, Jordanians, and the 16 Americans.

Of the Americans charged, only seven were in Egypt and thus trapped by the travel ban. All seven work for the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which are tied to US political parties and have many allies in Congress. Among those charged is IRI's Egypt director, Sam LaHood, who is the son of President Obama's Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood.

Egyptian newspapers today reported on their front pages that the judge who recused himself from the trial after the first hearing this week said he was pressured to lift the travel ban.

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