Egypt allows 7 Americans in NGO case to travel

Egypt on Wednesday lifted a travel ban on seven Americans who were on trial with 36 other civil-society workers on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds, the first sign that a case that has chilled Egyptian-U.S. relations may be nearing a resolution.

The lifting of the travel ban signaled to Egyptian legal experts that U.S. officials had succeeded in persuading the country’s ruling military council to back off and mend bilateral relations, which have frayed since the ouster a year ago of then-President Hosni Mubarak, one of Washington’s closest Arab allies.

Wednesday’s move came a day after a judge who had been presiding over the case withdrew amid rumors of political pressure that compromised his independence.

Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Shoukry expressed “unease” about continuing the trial, according to the state news agency MENA.

News reports quoted U.S. and Egyptian officials as saying the case wasn’t fully dismissed, however, with Egyptian defendants still on trial and the Americans required posting more than $300,000 each in “bail” before leaving the country.

Transitional authorities sought to use the case as an assertion of sovereignty, legal analysts said, but overplayed their hand and ended up looking as deferential to the West as ever. Although it’s unclear whether charges will be dropped, the Americans are free to leave the country, making any sentence unenforceable, said retired Justice Ahmed Mekky, a former head of Alexandria’s Court of Cassation.

If the Americans “can cancel a travel ban and interfere, then they have nothing to fear in Egypt,” Mekky said. “All those slogans about human rights and judicial independence are void if they contradict what the U.S. wants.”

There are 16 Americans among the 43 defendants, but only seven are thought to be in Egypt. Three of them made the extraordinary move of holing up inside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to avoid arrest, including Sam LaHood, the head of Egypt programs for the International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Egyptian defendants cautioned that, while the Americans appeared to be out of the danger zone, it was too early to tell whether their own charges would be dropped or they’d continue to trial as scheduled April 26.

“Legally, there is a court case and we’re waiting for a new judge to be assigned,” said Hafsa Halawa, an Egyptian defendant who works for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. “The politics are where they are, and I don’t have an opinion on that, but legally the case is working and we won’t settle for anything less than acquittal.”