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Egypt moves to defuse crisis over NGO trials

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Mohammed Asad/AP

(Read caption) In this Thursday, Dec. 29 file photo, workers from a non-governmental organization National Democratic Institute, or NDI, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo, Egypt.

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The AP is reporting, citing unnamed "Egyptian officials," that the country has lifted the travel ban on seven American NGO workers currently being tried in absentia for their democracy promotion work.

There's no word yet on whether the mass trial of democracy workers, whose defendants include Egyptians, Americans, Germans, Serbians, Palestinians, and Jordanians, will be called off. And what "unnamed" officials say is far from bankable, particularly in Egypt. Expect some confusing and contradictory statements out of Egypt in the hours and days ahead. 

But it seems fairly clear that the military junta now running Egypt is backing away from the politically motivated travel ban and trials, perhaps realizing that the country's more than $1 billion annual military subsidy from the US was about to turn in a pumpkin. The Obama administration must eventually either certify that Egypt is making progress on democracy and human rights, or issue a national security waiver explaining why US interests are served by providing money despite a lack of progress.

As a political question, that would be an impossible ask for Obama while the American NGO workers are still facing jail time in Egypt. That's not least because of who Egypt's military rulers have targeted.

Among those charged were employees of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Though all three groups are described as "nongovernment organizations" they nevertheless have close ties to the government, receiving much of their funding form the National Endowment for Democracy. IRI and NDI are packed with former Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle, making them friends and colleagues with senior US legislators.

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