U.S. pro-democracy workers flying out of Cairo, travel ban lifted

Laura Rozen

Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and five other U.S. pro-democracy workers flew out of Cairo Thursday after Egypt lifted a travel ban that had barred them from leaving the country for over a month, democracy groups and Egyptian media reports said.

A U.S. military plane waiting at Cairo airport since Wednesday was transporting the seven Americans and other foreign NGO workers to Cyprus. One American NGO worker, however, Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, "voluntarily chose to remain in Egypt after his bail was paid," the New York Times reported Thursday.

"IRI [International Republican Institute] welcomes this decision and is hopeful that the charges against its expatriate and local Egyptian staff will be dismissed," the organization, which employed LaHood as the chief of its Cairo office, said in a press statement Thursday. "IRI views the decision as a positive development but remains very concerned about the situation and our Egyptian employees."

The American NGO workers were allowed to leave Cairo after they paid bail of over $300,000 each, the Washington Post reported, citing Egypt's al-Ahram newspaper.

Egyptian police in December raided several foreign and Egyptian pro-democracy and civil society groups. In January, Egyptian prosecutors charged 43 foreign and Egyptian NGO workers with assisting groups that were not legally registered in Egypt and of receiving foreign funding. Reportedly seven of those charged were U.S. citizens currently in Egypt. Three IRI employees, including Sam LaHood, had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo after they were barred from leaving the country.

The case has caused the biggest rift in U.S.-Egyptian relations in decades, with U.S. lawmakers threatening to withhold over $1.3 billion in annual foreign assistance to Egypt, most of which goes to the Egyptian military.

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