CAIRO - A plane carrying seven American pro-democracy workers took off from Cairo airport after sunset Thursday, airport officials said, easing a deep crisis in relations over charges that their groups funded and promoted anti-government protests in Egypt.
In the last step before the seven boarded the plane, the U.S. government posted nearly $5 million in bail for them and nine others who managed to leave the country before charges were filed.
One of the seven flying out of Egypt on a special plane to Cyprus was Sam Lahood, son of U.S.. Transport Secretary Ray Lahood. He was the head of the International Republican Institute office in Cairo, a well established pro-democracy group.
A convoy of white vans carrying the symbol of the U.S. Embassy arrived at Cairo airport Thursday afternoon. carrying the seven accompanied by U.S. Embassy officials. Egypt's state news agency MENA says the Americans were "happily" taking group photos at the airport, along with eight other foreigners who were also allowed to leave the country.
The affair began in late December, when Egyptian security raided offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups. Workers, including 16 Americans, were then charged with using illegal funds and financing protests against the ruling Egyptian military. The groups and the U.S. government hotly denied the charges, and some U.S. officials threatened to cut off aid to Egypt over the affair.
The raids on the pro-democracy groups and charges against them dovetailed with frequent declarations by the ruling generals, blaming continuing unrest on unnamed "foreign hands." Local activists ridiculed the statements, charging that the military rulers were perpetuating the harsh, repressive tactics of the overthrown regime of President Hosni Mubarak and demanding that the generals hand over power to a civilian government.
The crisis started moving toward resolution on Tuesday, when the three judges in the case abruptly pulled out, citing "uneasiness." Lead judge Mohammed Shukry told the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram that there was interference in his work, but he did not say who pressured him.
"The problem started with the requests to lift the travel ban on the foreigners," he said. The ban was lifted Wednesday.
The resolution of the case was been seen by many as a concession by the ruling military under U.S. pressure, despite repeated statements by the generals that Egypt's judiciary is independent.
On Thursday, court officials said the U.S. posted bail for the seven and nine other Americans charged in the case who had already left Egypt. It was set at $300,000 for each of the 16 or $4.8 million. Egypt lifted the travel ban on the seven late Wednesday and set the bail.
Egyptian airport officials said that a U.S. military jet landed at Cairo airport on Wednesday, hours after Egypt announced lifting the travel ban. Its four-member crew spent their night inside the plane. It was set to fly to Cyprus with the Americans, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.