American activists fly out of Egypt, defusing row
Cairo: Seven Americans on trial over charges their pro-democracy groups fomented unrest flew out of Egypt on Thursday after the US posted nearly $5 million in bail for them and nine others who managed to leave before a travel ban was imposed.
The departure of the seven eased a deep diplomatic crisis between the US and Egypt that had been building for two months, following a crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights groups by the Egyptian government.
Though the Americans were safely on their way home, Washington indicated that its anger over the affair has not abated.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed relief that the Americans were free, but she pointedly noted that no decision has been made about US aid to Egypt.
As the crisis unfolded over the past two months, furious officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warned the $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance slated for Egypt this year was in jeopardy. Nuland pointed out Thursday that the court case against the pro-democracy groups is not over.
The 16 Americans facing charges are not expected to return to Egypt, but their trial has not been called off. After the first session Sunday, it was adjourned until April, and that ruling still stands.
A convoy of white vans carrying the symbol of the US Embassy arrived at Cairo airport Thursday afternoon. carrying the seven, accompanied by embassy officials. Egypt`s state news agency MENA said the Americans were "happily" taking group photos at the airport, along with eight other foreigners who were also allowed to leave the country.
One of the seven flying out of Egypt on a special plane to Cyprus was Sam Lahood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. He was the head of the International Republican Institute office in Cairo, a well established pro-democracy group.
The IRI called their release "a positive development" and said it was "hopeful that the charges against its expatriate and local Egyptian staff will be dismissed." The IRI statement also expressed concern about the future of efforts toward establishing democracy in Egypt in the wake of the affair.
Ray Lahood welcomed the development. "I`m pleased the court has lifted the travel ban and am looking forward to my son`s arrival in the US," he said in a statement. "I`d like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this time."
US Sen John McCain and other senators said that the crisis "may have tested" US-Egypt ties, but "the strength of our relationship prevailed."
Egypt and the United States have been close allies since the late 1970s, soon after the Egyptians abandoned decades of partnership with the Soviet Union and signed a peace treaty with Israel, the first Arab nation to do so. Informally, US aid to Egypt is contingent on Cairo keeping the peace with Israel.
The raids on the pro-democracy groups and charges against them dovetailed with frequent declarations by the ruling generals, blaming continuing unrest on unnamed "foreign hands." Local activists ridiculed those statements, charging that the military rulers were perpetuating the harsh, repressive tactics of the overthrown regime of President Hosni Mubarak and demanding that the generals hand over power to a civilian government.
Nonprofit pro-democracy groups have trained thousands of young Egyptians in political activism and organizing, an education that played a key part in the success of last year`s uprising that toppled Mubarak.
The crackdown began in late December, when Egyptian security raided offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups. Workers, including the 16 Americans, were then charged with using illegal funds and promoting protests against the ruling Egyptian military.
The groups hotly denied the charges. They insisted their financing is transparent, and all their efforts to register had been stalled by the Egyptian government.
The German government said two of its citizens, working for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, were on the plane to Cyprus. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed relief that they were freed but hoped that the case against them would be closed, so that their group "can resume its valuable work in Egypt without any hindrances."
Release of the foreigners was seen by many in Egypt as a concession by the ruling military to US pressure, despite repeated statements by the generals that Egypt`s judiciary is independent.
Speculation about generals exerting pressure surfaced when the three judges hearing the case abruptly pulled out Tuesday, citing "uneasiness." Lead judge Mohammed Shukry told the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram on Thursday that there was interference in his work, but he did not say who pressured him.
"The problem started with the requests to lift the travel ban on the foreigners," he said. The ban was lifted Wednesday.
On Thursday, court officials said the US posted bail for the seven, as well as nine other Americans charged in the case who had already left Egypt. It was set at $300,000 for each of the 16, or $4.8 million.
Egyptian airport officials said that a US military jet landed at Cairo airport on Wednesday, hours after Egypt announced lifting of the travel ban against the foreigners. Its four-member crew spent the night inside the plane.
All the Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
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