U.S.-Egypt Tensions Persist as Pro-Democracy Workers Allowed to Leave

U.S. pro-democracy workers facing trial in Egypt for illegally accepting foreign funds left the country yesterday, with the cases against them unresolved and tensions between the two nations still high.

Fifteen workers for non-governmental organizations, including the Americans, departed Cairo in a U.S. government plane after a court lifted their travel ban and their organizations posted bail. The group included Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The case drew attention from the highest levels of both governments and threw into question the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which is contingent this year on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifying that the government is advancing democracy. The aid has been a cornerstone of the U.S.- brokered 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the most populous Arab nation.

The dispute over the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, has underscored the uncertain state of U.S.-Egypt relations since pro-democracy protests forced out of office President Hosni Mubarak last year. The Egyptian government’s decision to press criminal charges against American and other pro-democracy workers — and impose a travel ban — opened the deepest rift with the U.S. in almost four decades.

“The relationship faces a broader deterioration, not based on this one episode, but on the broader fundamentals of whether the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government want to maintain a productive relationship with Washington,” said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research group.