WASHINGTON — The Obama administration expressed relief Thursday after Egypt allowed seven American democracy workers to leave the country but stressed that no decision had yet been made on whether their departure would clear the way for more than $1.5 billion in U.S. aid planned for Cairo.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was "very pleased" with the decision by Egyptian courts to lift a travel ban and allow the U.S. citizens to return home. She said the U.S. government provided a plane for them to leave Egypt on Thursday.
Their departure appeared to ease the worst crisis in U.S.-Egypt relations in three decades, but Nuland cautioned that the setting of bail and removal of the travel ban against the Americans didn't mean the case was over. She outlined the ramifications that Egypt's continued prosecution of nongovernmental institutions could have on American assistance for the country as it seeks to transition to democracy.
"We have been concerned that this incident could have a severe impact on all of the things we want to do together going forward," Nuland told reporters in Washington. "The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues resolving the NGOs. We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process. And we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
Thursday's events also would have no immediate effect on an American evaluation of whether to continue the large aid package it has been sending Egypt since its peace deal with Israel in 1979. The money was jeopardized by Egypt's decision to charge 16 American aid workers with purportedly fomenting unrest. Washington provided Cairo with tens of billions of dollars in military and other aid during the three-decade dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
For more aid to go through, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton must certify to Congress that Egypt is progressing in its democratic transformation. The evaluation will look at Egypt's election process and issues such as Egypt's treatment of nongovernment organizations, Nuland said.
"We continue to want to see the NGO situation settled in a matter that allows all NGOs — our own, European NGOs, other international NGOs, Egyptian NGOs — to be registered," she said. "We think that is part and parcel of the democratic transition."
The crisis began in December, when Egyptian security raided offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups. More than 40 workers, including the Americans, were later charged with using illegal funds and financing protests against the ruling Egyptian military. The groups and the U.S. government vehemently denied the charges.
The Americans represented the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists. One of those affected was Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Nine of the Americans charged were unaffected by the case because they had already left Egypt.
The rest were allowed to leave Thursday after the U.S. posted almost $5 million in bail.
LaHood issued a statement about his son's release Thursday, saying, "I'm pleased the court has lifted the travel ban and am looking forward to my son's arrival in the U.S."
Nuland stressed that "no bribes" were paid and that the bail simply meant they could now leave the country. Asked if that meant they would return should their appearance at court be demanded, Nuland said that decision would be up to each individual person.
She said the bail was posted by the groups themselves. Those groups are all heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, but Nuland refused to say if any of the cash came from taxpayer money.