Politico: NGO Workers Allowed to Leave Egypt, Ending High-Profile Standoff

Sam LaHood, NGO Workers Exit Egypt
By John Bresnahan

Sam LaHood and a handful other Americans — plus a group of NGO workers from other countries — left Egypt on Thursday, ending a high-profile standoff that had threatened to derail the critical U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

LaHood and the other passengers first stopped in Cyprus before continuing on with their trip, U.S. officials said after their government-chartered plane left Cairo.

Their departure came after Egyptian authorities lifted a “no- fly” ban against LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and the other Americans caught up in a dispute over the role of U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations in recent Egyptian elections. U.S. officials paid several million dollars in bail — between $4 million and $5 million according to media reports — as part of a broader agreement to release the U.S. and foreign employees.

Ray LaHood, who had spoken personally to President Barack Obama and Egyptian officials about the standoff, expressed gratitude that it was over.

“I’m pleased the court has lifted the travel ban and am looking forward to my son’s arrival in the U.S.,” Ray LaHood said in a statement. “I’d like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this time.”

The International Republican Institute, the organization for which LaHood worked, also issued a statement praising the move by Egyptian authorities as a “positive development.” The group added, however, that it “remains very concerned about the situation and the impact it will have on Egypt’s ability to move forward with the democratic transition that so many Egyptians have sought.”

The younger LaHood and other Americans are among 43 NGO employees facing criminal charges of using illegally obtained funds to stir up unrest inside Egypt. Sam LaHood runs the Egyptian program for the IRI, a federally backed organization that promotes democracy. Other NGO workers facing charges include Egyptians, Serbs, Norwegians and Germans, Reuters reported.

The judicial proceedings against the NGO employees began Sunday but was immediately suspended until late April, and the three Egyptian judges overseeing the case resigned.

POLITICO first reported that Egyptian officials had barred Sam LaHood from leaving the country following a Dec. 29 raid on the NGO offices.

The dispute had drawn in Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top U.S. officials, as well as senior leaders in Egypt, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council that rules Egypt.

Members of both the House and Senate — including many who served with Ray LaHood during his years in Congress — were infuriated by Egypt’s intransigence. They threatened to cut off $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to the longtime ally unless the NGO workers were released.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had worked out a deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid to vote on his amendment to the Senate’s transportation bill to cut aid to Egypt unless the NGO employees were released, an offering Democratic senators had called non-germane and detrimental to the bill’s progress. Paul said he is open to withdrawing the amendment once he knows the American workers are safe.

“If they get in on a plane then probably, in all likelihood, we will [withdraw],” Paul told POLITICO. “We want to make sure they are free.”

Paul said his floor speeches and attention-grabbing amendment may have tipped the scales in favor of the NGOs.

“We think we’ve had some influence over there in getting them free,” Paul said.

Talks had been progressing behind the scenes for weeks among officials of the NGOs, the U.S. and Egypt on how to defuse the crisis, but progress in those secret negotiations was slow and halting. NGO representatives had floated proposals that would allow for the U.S. citizens to leave Egypt after signing a document stipulating they would return as necessary.

But sources familiar with these discussions said it was difficult to determine who was actually in charge in that troubled country.

Egypt has been plagued with street demonstrations over the past few months as protestors have pushed the ruling military council to relinquish power faster than its proposed timetable. In response to the protests, Tantawi has pushed forward the date of the proposed presidential elections to replace Hosni Mubarak, the longtime Egyptian strongman who was overthrown last year. The elections are now scheduled for May, according to Egyptian media reports.

It seemed to some U.S. observers that Egyptian officials were stirring up anti-American sentiment, long a staple of Egyptian politics, to distract from internal problems.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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