CAIRO — Egypt on Wednesday lifted a travel ban on seven Americans being tried on charges that the pro-democracy groups they worked for fomented unrest with illegal foreign funding. The shift signals an end to the worst crisis in relations between Egypt and the U.S. in 30 years.
The dispute had put $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt at risk, sparking intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between U.S. officials and Egypt's ruling military to find a solution.
Egyptian officials said the travel ban was lifted by the country's top prosecutor at the recommendation of the case's investigating judge. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
It was not immediately clear whether the charges against the Americans would be dropped. However, defense lawyer Tharwat Abdel-Shaheed said the seven Americans could only leave the country if they post bail set at 2 million Egyptian pounds (about $300,000). The seven have also signed pledges to attend the next hearing.
"The ban was lifted on humanitarian grounds but the bail is way too high," Abdel-Shaheed told The Associated Press.
The seven, who include the son of U.S. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood, are among 16 Americans who are on trial in the case. The other Americans had no travel ban against them and had already left the country. Besides the Americans, 27 others are on trial, including 16 Egyptians as well as German, Palestinian, Serbian and Jordanian citizens.
The trial opened on Sunday and adjourned until April 26, but the court's three judges recused themselves from the case on Tuesday, citing "uneasiness."
In a sign a resolution was in the works, only the Egyptian defendants attended Sunday's hearing, and the judge gave no instructions to police to ensure the American and other foreign defendants attend the next hearing. The judges' stepping down was another clear sign that the case could be dropped.
U.S. officials, furious over the case, have threatened to cut off aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid this year and $250 million in economic assistance.
Egypt and the United States have been close allies since the late 1970s, soon after the Egyptians abandoned decades of partnership with the Soviet Union and signed a peace treaty with Israel, the first Arab nation to do so. Informally, U.S. aid to Egypt is hinged on Cairo keeping the peace with Israel.
The Americans and other defendants faced charges of using illegally obtained funds to foment unrest in Egypt and incite protests against the military rulers. They worked for a variety of democracy-promoting organizations, including four U.S. groups.
Abdel-Shaheed said that all four U.S. groups — the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists — have completed registration requirements set by Egyptian authorities, a process that could greatly weaken the case against them.
The resignation of the judges stipulates the appointment of replacements and the resumption of the trial, but Abdel-Shaheed said that could take longer than April 26.
Rights groups have sharply criticized the investigation into the civil society groups and the charges against the workers, saying they are part of an orchestrated effort by the generals to silence critics and cripple pro-democracy organizations critical of their handling of what was supposed to be a transition to democracy.
The charges dovetail with constant pronouncements from the military that protests against their rule are directed by unnamed, dark foreign forces, a claim that is ridiculed by Egyptian activists.
The heavily publicized case of the four U.S. pro-democracy groups has been linked to the turmoil roiling Egypt since an 18-day popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11 last year.
The groups have trained thousands of young Egyptians in political activism and organizing, an education that played a key part in the success of last year's uprising. Egypt's ruling generals claim they support the uprising, routinely referring to it as the "glorious revolution."
The affair began in December, when Egyptian security raided 17 offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups, confiscating documents and equipment. It led to charges that the groups have financed protests over the past year with illegally obtained funds and have failed to register with the government as required.
The groups insist their financing is transparent, and all their efforts to register have been stalled by the Egyptian government.