Egypt reportedly lifted a travel ban on seven American civil society workers in what appears to be a breakthrough in the crisis that put the virtually sacrosanct package of military aid to Cairo at risk for the first time in three decades.
Egypt's charges against sixteen Americans—including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood-- for allegedly accepting foreign funds to operate in the country and stirring domestic unrest set off a diplomatic crisis between longtime allies U.S. and Egypt. The planned prosecution of personnel from prominent Washington-based groups like the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute also sparked a firestorm on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers calling for the U.S. to consider holding off on providing military aid until the situation is resolved.
The Associated Press cited Egyptian officials as saying the country’s top prosecutor lifted the travel ban at the recommendation of the case's investigating judge—but it’s not immediately clear on whether their charges will be dropped.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs committee, however, that the U.S. does not have confirmation the travel ban has been lifted. "We hope that it will be, and we will continue to work toward that," Clinton said. "The reporting is encouraging but we have no confirmation."
The first indications of a possible resolution to the standoff emerged on Sunday, when the trial against the 43 civil society workers began, but was adjourned hours later. None of the 16 Americans were in court that day. Only the seven Americans affected by the travel ban remain in Egypt. Fearing for their arrest, several of them took shelter at the U.S. embassy in Cairo when they discovered they were barred from leaving the country.
New conditions set by Congress on the $1.3 billion in military aid appropriated for fiscal 2012 require certification that the Egyptian government is supporting a democratic transition and implementing policies to protect due process of law and freedom of expression, association, and religion. It would have been impossible for the administration to certify that these conditions are being met while the Egyptian government continued to prosecute civil-society workers, and using a waiver would be politically difficult because of burgeoning anger on Capitol Hill.
Clinton, speaking before the news broke that Egypt lifted the travel ban, described “a lot of very tough conversations” with Egyptians to resolve the NGO crisis and said a resolution could come in the very near future. “I take this very seriously and have expended an enormous amount of energy, along with other top officials not only in our government, but we have reached out to many governments,” Clinton told the House Appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.
However, lawmakers did not appear totally convinced the crisis with Egypt was resolved with the latest news. “Even though press reports indicate that Egypt may have decided to lift the travel ban on our NGO workers, we should not reward Egypt with aid when it is demonstrating hostility to Western, democratic entities, and is engaging in an ongoing dance between authoritarians and the Muslim Brotherhood," House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said on Wednesday.
-- Sophie Quinton contributed contributed to this article.