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Egypt moves to defuse crisis over NGO trials

What exactly is happening isn't clear yet. But it seems fairly certain that Egypt's ruling junta is backing away from the prosecution of NGO workers that led to the worst US-Egypt diplomatic crisis in decades.

By Staff writer / February 29, 2012

In this Thursday, Dec. 29 file photo, workers from a non-governmental organization National Democratic Institute, or NDI, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo, Egypt.

Mohammed Asad/AP

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The AP is reporting, citing unnamed "Egyptian officials," that the country has lifted the travel ban on seven American NGO workers currently being tried in absentia for their democracy promotion work.

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There's no word yet on whether the mass trial of democracy workers, whose defendants include Egyptians, Americans, Germans, Serbians, Palestinians, and Jordanians, will be called off. And what "unnamed" officials say is far from bankable, particularly in Egypt. Expect some confusing and contradictory statements out of Egypt in the hours and days ahead. 

But it seems fairly clear that the military junta now running Egypt is backing away from the politically motivated travel ban and trials, perhaps realizing that the country's more than $1 billion annual military subsidy from the US was about to turn in a pumpkin. The Obama administration must eventually either certify that Egypt is making progress on democracy and human rights, or issue a national security waiver explaining why US interests are served by providing money despite a lack of progress.

As a political question, that would be an impossible ask for Obama while the American NGO workers are still facing jail time in Egypt. That's not least because of who Egypt's military rulers have targeted.

Among those charged were employees of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Though all three groups are described as "nongovernment organizations" they nevertheless have close ties to the government, receiving much of their funding form the National Endowment for Democracy. IRI and NDI are packed with former Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle, making them friends and colleagues with senior US legislators.

Among the seven Americans banned from leaving Egypt is (or was) Sam LaHood, son of the former Congressmen and current Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sixteen American in all have been charged, with none in the box on the first day of the trial on Sunday. Nine left the country weeks ago. The remaining seven have been holed up at the US Embassy in Cairo, among them Mr. LaHood. The trial proceedings ended quickly on Sunday, with the next date set for the end of April. Three judges on the panel quickly resigned over unexplained "discomfort" with the proceedings.

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