CAIRO — 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's chilled Egyptian-American 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'd 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 to post more than $300,000 each in "bail" before leaving the country.
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Transitional authorities sought to use the case as an assertion of sovereignty, legal analysts said, but overplayed their hand and end 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."
The case began with raids in December on 17 offices of U.S. and Egyptian nongovernmental organizations, on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and failing to properly register with the government.
By the time the matter went to trial Sunday, Washington lawmakers had threatened to retaliate by cutting Egypt's annual $1.3 billion in military aid, and state media continued to smear the American defendants as agents who were working secretly to promote U.S.-friendly agendas.
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. Sam LaHood couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Pentagon's top general and several Washington lawmakers raised concern about the matter and said they'd spoken privately with Egyptian officials to urge a resolution in the case. They warned that the military aid package was in jeopardy.
While none of the Americans who were accused showed up in court for the opening day of trial, 14 Egyptian NGO workers stood in the traditional defendants' cage. They, too, protested the charges in their own ways. Their supporters in the courtroom disrupted proceedings with chants against military rule, while a female defendant conspicuously flipped through a book by George Orwell, the novelist known for his sharp critique of totalitarianism.
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."
Only minutes after state media announced the lifting of the travel ban, Egyptians took to social media to express their views on the case, ranging from relief at the apparent resolution or outrage that, after so much buildup, Western interests trumped the rule of law.
"Great precedent we've established with foreign nations. Push us hard enough, your citizens will receive preferential treatment," an Egyptian using the handle "Cynical Islamist" posted on Twitter.
The NGO workers have few friends in Egypt, thanks to a long-standing campaign in state media to portray them as agents of disruption. Prosecutors in the case used state media to portray the workers as sowing instability, accusing them of transferring huge sums of money from Washington to Egypt to influence the uprising against Mubarak.
The NGOs counter that they've tried to register properly for years, long before the revolt, only to meet bureaucratic and political obstacles from the government.
There's no word on when or whether the NGOs will be able to resume operating and return to activities such as monitoring elections and training candidates. Presidential polls — the first since Mubarak's ouster — are scheduled for May.
While the United States appears to have won this round, analysts said, the case only further soured Egyptians' view of Washington and its partially state-funded pro-democracy outfits. With some success, the generals have tried to deflect blame for the transitional instability and security vacuum to the American activists. The stigma from the case is likely to make working in Egypt difficult for the groups for years to come.
"State media keeps selling the idea that we are standing up to the Americans, who want civil disobedience," said Ziad Akl, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. "We've always dealt with the Americans on a non-domestic level — what they're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan — but now state media is trying to sell the idea that Americans are interfering inside Egypt."
(Al Desoukie is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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