Seven Americans on trial over charges their pro-democracy groups fomented unrest have flown out of Egypt after the US posted nearly US$5 million in bail for them and nine others who managed to leave before a travel ban was imposed.
Thursday’s 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.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed relief that the Americans were free, but she pointedly said that no decision has been made about US aid to Egypt.
As the crisis unfolded over the past two months, furious officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the US$1.3 billion in military aid and US$250 million in economic assistance slated for Egypt this year was in jeopardy. Nuland said on Thursday that the court case against the pro-democracy groups was 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 on Sunday, it was adjourned until next month, and that ruling still stands.
A convoy of white vans carrying the symbol of the US Embassy arrived at Cairo airport on 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 US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He was the head of the International Republican Institute (IRI) 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 Senator 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 US 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 former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and demanding that the generals hand over power to a civilian government.