CAIRO – Egypt on Wednesday lifted a travel ban on seven Americans employed by pro-democracy U.S. groups, signaling an end to the worst crisis in relations between Egypt and the U.S. in 30 years.
The seven, who include the son of U.S. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood, are among 16 Americans who are on trial along with 27 others on charges of using illegally obtained funds to foment unrest in Egypt and incite protests against the nation's military rulers.
The trial opened on Sunday and adjourned until April 26, but the court's three judges resigned from the case on Tuesday, citing "uneasiness." None of the 16 Americans were in court on Sunday. Only the seven affected by the travel ban are still in Egypt.
Egyptian officials said the travel ban was lifted by the country's top prosecutor at the recommendation of the case's investigating judge. It was not immediately clear whether the charges against the Americans would be dropped.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
U.S. officials, furious over the case, have threatened to cut off aid to aid -- $1.3 billion in military aid this year and $250 million in economic assistance.
Resolving the crisis has been the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Signs of a possible resolution came as early as Sunday, when only 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 in two months.
Then came the resignation of the judges, another clear sign that the case could be dropped.
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 charges dovetail with constant pronouncements from Egypt's military rulers 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."
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 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.
Beside the 16 Americans, the case involves 16 Egyptians, and others are German, Palestinian, Serb and Jordanian.