The Two-Way
12:00 pm
Wed February 29, 2012

Reports: Egypt To Let Pro-Democracy Americans Leave Country

Originally published on Wed February 29, 2012 7:34 pm

Reuters and The Associated Press are reporting that Egyptian authorities have decided that seven Americans who it has accused of engaging in illegal "political activity" may now leave the country.

Those Americans include Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The younger man runs the U.S. government-sponsored International Republican Institute in Egypt.

As the AP says, "the decision Wednesday appeared to signal the end of the worst crisis in relations between Egypt and the U.S. in 30 years." American diplomats and lawmakers had warned that if the Americans weren't allowed to leave Egypt that might lead to a cut in U.S. aid to that country.

Both Reuters and the AP are now citing anonymous Egyptian officials as their sources for today's news.

Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress that "we've had a lot of very tough conversations" with Egypt and "we're moving toward a resolution."

Update at 2:30 p.m. ET. On Capitol Hill today, according to The Associated Press, Clinton said she is encouraged by the report but that the U.S. has not yet confirmed that Egyptian authorities have indeed decided to let the Americans depart.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Egyptian government appears to have lifted a travel ban on seven U.S. citizens, facing charges in connection with their work for democracy-building and civil society groups. They're among more than 40 people, Egyptians as well as foreigners, who worked for NGOs like the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House.

These groups were accused of working illegally in Egypt. The case has severely strained U.S.-Egyptian relations, with Washington threatening to cut off $1.5 billion in annual aid to Cairo.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the Egyptian capital and she joins U.S. on the line now. Soraya, start by describing to us the details of this decision. How did you learn about the lifting of this travel ban?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, like everything else with this case, it was very confusing and from multiple sources. Initially we heard via Twitter, basically, from one of the lawyers that was working with some of these NGO workers, that the travel ban had in fact been lifted and that bail had been set for each of the foreign defendants, in the amount of two million Egyptian pounds - which is the equivalent of $333,000 more or less. And then, we got some confirmation from a second lawyer.

But the NGO workers, who have been very quiet about this, they did not receive official confirmation. And so, they're basically waiting for that confirmation. They need to receive official word. I mean, all along it's been a problem for them that they haven't received the charges, they haven't had any summons served on them, and it's very confusing. There are a lot of mixed messages that are being given here.

CORNISH: And remind us, what are the charges? What is the case against these NGO workers and how has it played out in Cairo?

NELSON: Well, there are a number of charges involving these NGOs operating here illegally, without a permit; also, the employees being here on tourist visas rather than regular visas; of employees not paying taxes. These are things that are all being denied by the NGOs - while the permit, in fact, hadn't been issued, it's because the government here doesn't issue permits to any groups that do not tow the government's line.

But they had been working closely with the security forces here. I mean, they actually had - one of the NGOs described how they had a security officer assigned to them. They had to meet with him regularly and report on their general activities, not actually giving names but just talking about what they were doing. So the government was very well aware that they were here.

And so, it's been something that's been characterized here as being, you know, American interference, U.S. aid money going to cement unrest. But it's also very widely seen, within the NGO circles and certainly in the West, as being politically motivated.

CORNISH: Lastly, Soraya, what is the state of the case now?

NELSON: Well, their first session was held on Sunday and it's been postponed now - or adjourned, I should say - until April 26th. The three-judge panel that was hearing the case on the first day has recused itself, because they felt uncomfortable with the case. They described it to defense lawyers as being hollow and politically motivated. And so, a new panel of judges will be appointed and the trial is expected to continue on April 26th.

And as one of the lawyers noted, who was talking about the travel ban being lifted, these defendants will be found guilty in absentia if they don't return for the trial.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from Cairo. Thanks so much, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.