Americans Detained In Egypt Now Allowed To Leave

American democracy workers are headed home from Egypt, where they had been under a travel ban.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. American democracy activists held in Egypt are headed home today. The nongovernmental organizations whose employees were being held confirmed that the travel ban had been lifted. The workers were being held in Egypt on charges of fomenting unrest. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo, and she joins us now on the line.

Soraya, how many people are leaving Egypt altogether - I mean Americans?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, there are seven Americans, and there are 17 total. There are other foreigners among them - Serbs and Germans, to name a few. And they are at the airport. They've checked in. They're about to get on a chartered flight headed to Cypress, at which point they will all divide up and go to their various respective countries.

MONTAGNE: And give us a little background. These were - these people were originally - not arrested. Give us a little background on them.

NELSON: Well, they were never arrested. And, in fact, the formal charges were - I mean, it was a very confusing matter, because there was a lot of publicity on Egyptian state-run press about who was charged with what. But it's like, in terms of actually serving the people who were charged, you know, that's something that took a very long time. And basically, they're being - the NGOs and the workers are being charged with operating illegally in Egypt, with receiving illegal - or illegally receiving foreign funding, with basically doing things that were not in conjunction with civil society mandates, which they were here for.

A lot of this - obviously, all of this is something that the NGOs were denying. And it was seen, even here, as something that was being politically driven.

MONTAGNE: And why was it seen as being politically driven?

NELSON: Well, the feeling was that U.S. aid was not being channeled through the proper ministries. It was going straight to projects and to these pro-democracy groups, and that efforts were afoot to make democracy happen in Egypt without the government's say-so. Of course, there are also a lot of protests and things going on, especially against the ruling generals and the interim government. And so this was sort of seen as a way to detract from that and to sort of raise the level of xenophobia here in Egypt.

MONTAGNE: And this became a huge issue politically between the U.S. and Egypt. Remind us of that.

NELSON: Yes. Well, the U.S. government, of course, was very concerned about American NGO workers and others being sort of held up as spies and as people who were creating problems here. There were threats of cutting off more than a billion dollars in aid that comes here to Egypt, both to the military and for development projects here every year. And so there's been a lot of back-and-forth. Certainly, in the press here, it's being portrayed as Americans trying to make Egypt into its - into something that works for it and sort of, you know, Zionist conspiracy. And every sort of fear that Egyptians here have on the ground was being sort of exacerbated by these claims.

MONTAGNE: So what does this deal mean for relations now between the U.S. and Egypt? Are things smoothed over now that at least this group is being able to leave?

NELSON: Well, not at all, actually, because the trial continues, even though at the moment, judges have stepped down - the judges that were overseeing this have stepped down because they were uncomfortable with the case. They didn't feel it was, necessarily, I guess, something that was viable, judicially speaking. And so what's happening is that the trial will continue. And, in fact, the Americans and the other foreigners are expected to come back and be here for the next session, which, at this stage, is scheduled for April 26th.

MONTAGNE: And just very briefly, does this mean an end to the pro-democracy work that these Americans and other foreigners were engaged in?

NELSON: Not according to the groups. They plan to continue, and they still do have many employees on the ground who are not foreign nationals.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking to us from Cairo.

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