CAIRO — An Egyptian judge is set to lift a travel ban against at least seven Americans accused of violating Egypt’s laws on foreign financing of civil-society groups, said lawyers for the defendants, a move that would go toward easing a diplomatic row that has strained Washington’s relationship with one of its closest security partners in the Middle East.
Lawyers for the American civil-society workers, including at least three who have taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to avoid arrest, said each of the accused would pay two million Egyptian pounds ($330,460) in bail in order to leave the country.
They didn’t say who would supply the funds.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she welcomed the news on Wednesday, but added that she had received no confirmation that the travel ban had been lifted.
Reports of the decision come amid strenuous U.S. diplomatic efforts to free the accused nongovernmental workers, including Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Egypt’s state-owned newspaper, Al Ahram, reported that a U.S. military plane was waiting at Cairo International Airport to airlift the American NGO employees out of the country, but a U.S. defense official in Washington on Wednesday said he couldn’t confirm the presence of an American military plane in Cairo.
U.S. policy makers have repeatedly stressed to Egypt’s military government over the past two months that prosecuting the American NGO employees could jeopardize the $1.3 billion in military aid Washington has given Egypt each year since 1987.
It remained unclear on Wednesday whether the decision to lift the travel ban, if confirmed, was the result of U.S. diplomatic pressure or a realization that the case was too weak to justify holding the accused.
But regardless of the reasoning behind the decision, if confirmed, it marks a turnaround for an interim Egyptian government that has sought to portray its case against the NGO workers as a muscular defense of Egypt’s national security and sovereignty against meddling foreign powers.
If Egypt’s public regard the decision as a concession to American diplomatic meddling, it could damage the military’s self-stylization as protectors of the Egyptian nation.
Egyptian cabinet ministers and two judges assigned to prosecute the case have accused the NGO workers of paying activists to incite chaos in Egypt as part of a bid to destabilize the country.
Egyptian activists have countered that the rhetoric was aimed at blaming the interim military’s failures—persistent political instability and a weakening economy—on shady foreign conspiracies.
“Now the people are asking, ‘Why did you start this case and tell us this is to defend sovereignty when at the end we found that you accepted invasion of our sovereignty?’ ” said Hafez Abu Saeda, a lawyer for some of the accused Egyptian NGO employees.
The 43 accused Egyptian and foreign NGO employees were charged Sunday with violating Egypt’s highly restrictive law on foreign funding for civil-society organizations.
If convicted, they could face a financial penalty and up to five years in prison.
But the case was fraught with confusion from the beginning.
Only 13 of the accused appeared in court when the trial began on Sunday because, lawyers for the absent defendants said, only a minority of the suspects were ever officially served official papers notifying them of the charges.
None of the foreign workers appeared in court, and the judges decided not to remand into custody any of the suspects.
Two days after judges adjourned the case until late April, the three assigned judges recused themselves with little explanation except that they felt “embarrassment” over the case, official state media reported.
A retired high-level judge who has close connections to the court said on Wednesday that the justices probably stepped down to avoid facing outside political pressure.
Judge Ahmed Makki said the head of Egypt’s appeals court phoned the judges assigned to the case on Tuesday and asked them to lift the travel ban on the defendants.
“The judges may have considered this an intervention—that a request of this kind by the appeals court may have put the judges in a tough spot,” Mr. Makki said.
Sarwat Abdel Shahid, an attorney hired to defend the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and an American journalism-training organization, said the judges probably stepped down to avoid entangling themselves in a highly politicized show trial that lacked strong evidence against the accused.
Though buoyed by Wednesday’s news, defense lawyers warned that the case remains unfinished. Egypt’s appeals court is still likely to appoint new judges to adjudicate the trial when it resumes on April 26.
The case’s troubles are likely to linger for Egypt’s ruling military, whose yearlong management of Egypt’s postrevolutionary transition has been fraught with difficulty, said Hani Shukrallah, a political analyst and the editor of the English-language website for the Al Ahram newspaper.
Any perception that the ruling military compromised Egypt’s security to satisfy the U.S. would damage its already shaky public esteem.
The head of Egypt’s High Election Commission on Wednesday said presidential elections will be held May 23 and 24.
The generals who pledged to lead Egypt’s transition to democracy will need popular support to bolster their claims to enhanced political powers after they hand over authority to civilians.
“They are in trouble with the public already,” he said of the Egypt’s armed forces. “They’ve become ridiculous actually.”
The trial will near a final resolution only when Egypt’s government legally registers at least 10 NGOs under suspicion, said Mr. Abdel Shahid.
The official registration, which he said is likely to come within days, will render the organizations legal and sap momentum from the prosecutors’ arguments.
“The case will take some time but it will be much easier [to have the charges dismissed] if the registration happens,” said Mr. Abdel Shahid.Top