CAIRO — Six Americans accused of violating Egyptian civil-society laws left the country on Thursday night, effectively ending a diplomatic spat that nearly upended Washington’s relationship with one of its closest security partners in the Middle East.
The Americans were among 43 employees charged with illegally operating unregistered nongovernmental organizations and receiving foreign funds without government authorization. If convicted, the defendants could face financial penalties and up to five years in prison.
Their trial began Sunday, but the judges adjourned it to April 26 and recused themselves on Tuesday, citing “embarrassment” over the proceedings.
The four U.S.-based NGOs implicated in the case posted nearly $5 million in bail for the 16 Americans charged in the case. Egyptian state media reported that the Americans were escorted to the airport in white vans belonging to the U.S. Embassy.
At least four of the Americans had taken refuge at the embassy since the charges against them were first announced in the media in January.
The departure of the U.S. citizens, including Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the International Republican Institute and son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, would seem to ease recent tensions in U.S.-Egyptian relations.
But the fallout from the case will leave lingering questions about the durability of America’s security partnership with an Egyptian military whose posture toward its American ally appears to have shifted since it assumed governance of the country when former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011.
On Thursday, the Obama administration said it was “very pleased” that the diplomatic crisis had eased, but stressed it didn’t solve all of the outstanding differences between the two countries.
Despite the Americans’ departure, the charges against them haven’t been dropped, and Fayza Aboul Naga, Egypt’s minister of planning and international cooperation, said on Thursday that the case would continue.
U.S. lawmakers who pressed a threat to rescind more than $1.5 billion in American aid, including $1.3 billion a year to the military, welcomed the departure of the Americans.
“The events of the past two months may have tested U.S.-Egypt relations, but the strength of our relationship prevailed,” Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), John Hoeven (R., N.D.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said in a statement.
However, the Obama administration made clear it remains troubled over the Egyptian government’s handling of the legal status for NGOs and by the country’s slow progress toward democratic transition.
The concerns could affect U.S. aid in the future. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify Egypt’s progress on democratic transition for aid to move forward, and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the government’s treatment of NGOs would be seen as a litmus test.
“We continue to want to see the NGO situation settled in a manner that allows all NGOs—our own, European NGOs, other international NGOs and Egyptian NGOs—to be registered,” Ms. Nuland said. “We think that’s part and parcel of the democratic transition.”
On Capitol Hill, satisfaction for the Americans’ newfound freedom was tempered by the continuing legal case against Egyptian NGO workers.
“We hope that the recent decision to postpone the trial of these individuals until April will ultimately lead to the court proceedings being halted altogether,” the senators said.
The International Republican Institute, one of the U.S.-funded democracy-building groups, welcomed the news of the end of the travel ban, but said it remains “very concerned about the situation and our Egyptian employees along with the continuing investigations of Egyptian civil-society groups.”
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass,), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed the hope that the end of the diplomatic crisis would allow attention to shift to Egypt’s economy.
“As I said on my visits to Cairo after the revolution, without adequate attention to the economic challenge, Tahrir Square could again be filled with protests calling for something other than democracy,” he said. “Egyptians cannot afford to win a revolution but lose this moment of opportunity.”
Following a year in which Egypt’s ruling military has publicly blamed the U.S. for deliberately stoking unrest, anti-American sentiment has increased at a time when Egyptian public opinion increasingly matters to the country’s policy makers, said a high-level official in Egypt’s Foreign Ministry.
The freeing of the Americans has bruised the military’s diplomatic bona fides—the military has been seen publicly acquiescing in its first public confrontation with U.S. patrons. But with the military slated to hand over power to an elected president before the end of June, Egyptian politicians are likely attuned to the substantial political dividends to be earned from launching rhetorical attacks against the U.S., said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert and a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation.
Sarwat Abdel Shahid, an attorney hired to defend the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and an American journalism-training organization, on Thursday said the defendants have all committed to returning for the April 26 resumption of the trial.
He said one NDI employee remained in Egypt on his own accord and for unstated reasons.
On Thursday, the NDI said it welcomed the lifting of the travel ban, but said it “remains deeply concerned about the welfare of its Egyptian employees.”
Activists in Egypt’s NGO community say the charges were a cynical gambit to blame America for the military’s inability to calm the country’s streets and heal its suffering economy.
Yet the case now appears to have stopped in its tracks only a few days after the trial opened on Sunday.
The judges adjudicating the court abruptly resigned on Tuesday, only two days after the trial began, with little explanation except that they felt “embarrassment” over the trial.
Details over the judges’ recusal crept to the fore on Thursday. Abdel Moaz Ibrahim, the head of Egypt’s appeals court, told Egyptian state television that he had asked Judge Mahmoud Shoukry to step down after information surfaced that his son worked in a legal consultancy that has connections to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
But Mr. Ibrahim’s explanation for the judges’ recusal came too late to forestall a tidal wave of speculation on Thursday that the trial’s proceedings had fallen victim to U.S. pressure.
High-level American officials have repeatedly stressed that Cairo’s reluctance to drop charges against the NGO workers could prompt Congress to cancel $1.3 billion in aid Washington has given Egypt’s military each year since 1987.
Egyptian officials have countered that the country’s independent judicial system lies beyond the scope of diplomatic pressure.
On Thursday, Egyptian politicians across the political spectrum openly questioned the integrity of Egypt’s judiciary, historically one of the country’s most-esteemed government bodies.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Parliament called for an investigation into why the the travel ban was lifted.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading political reformer, Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on his Twitter account: “NGO trials in Egypt: erratic due process is blatantly irreconcilable with independent judiciary & genuine democracy.”
Members of Parliament demanded that judicial officials be asked to testify before the legislature about why the case so abruptly changed direction.
Nathan Hodge in Washington contributed to this article.Top