REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Egypt announced Wednesday that seven American pro-democracy workers accused of instigating unrest are free to leave the country, signaling a possible resolution to the worst diplomatic crisis between Washington and Cairo in decades.
The lifting of the travel ban on the Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, follows intense diplomatic negotiations to stem a precipitous free-fall in relations between Washington and one of its closest Middle East allies.
Egyptian state television reported that General Prosecutor Abdel Maguid Mahmoud had lifted the travel ban on the Americans but did not dismiss the charges against them. Forty-three pro-democracy workers, including 16 Americans, went on trial Sunday on charges of operating non-governmental organizations without a license and receiving millions of dollars in illicit foreign funding.
Most of the Americans had left the country, but seven had sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy to avoid arrest.
The prosecutor’s decision follows Tuesday’s recusal of the three judges presiding over the case. In a memo, the judges said they were stepping aside for “uneasiness and embarrassment.” The document offered no other specifics but some in the Egyptian media suggested the judges may have encountered political pressure.
“Egyptian relations with the United States are hanging in the balance in this trial and no judge would want to be the man making a ruling that could hamper or jeopardize such relations,” said Mahmoud Abdel Razek, a law professor at the University of Zagazig. “Any verdict might have historical consequences for the whole country.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a Senate committee hearing Tuesday that the case was close to being resolved: "We are engaged in very intensive discussions with the Egyptian government about finding a solution," Clinton said. "We've had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we are moving toward a resolution."
The months-long case has been a test for the Obama administration and Egypt’s ruling military council. The charges against the Americans highlighted Washington’s waning influence in a region swept by uprisings and revolts that altered the traditional balance of power. And for the Egyptian army, the matter helped stoke nationalism while deflecting criticism against military human rights abuses since last year’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
The question now is whether Egypt’s army-appointed government can finesse to the public why it appears to have softened its stance against Washington, which is increasingly viewed as determined to advance U.S. and Israeli interests. The generals, however, were facing the prospect of losing $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose son Sam faces charges in Egypt. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images