Egyptian authorities are blocking Americans working for U.S.-based pro-democracy organizations from leaving the country pending a decision on whether to put them on trial.
The development, drawing top-level attention, has raised tensions with the U.S. at a time when the Obama administration has been seeking to aid Egypt’s democratic transition.
The travel ban came to light after Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and resident country director of the International Republican Institute, or IRI, in Egypt, was stopped from boarding a flight to leave the country. The institute is one of three U.S. pro-democracy groups raided by Egyptian police in December for allegedly breaking local laws.
LaHood was stopped on Jan. 21, a day after President Barack Obama called Egyptian Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s interim ruling body, and stressed the importance of allowing non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to operate freely.
“In most other countries, if the president of the United States calls, you try to get to yes,” Lorne Craner, head of the Washington-based IRI, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Here, we’re not seeing any movement whatsoever and it continues to get worse. That’s what is especially distressing and disquieting.”
Secretary LaHood told reporters in Washington yesterday that he has spoken to his son three or four times by telephone. His son appreciates the work being done by the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, to get him home, LaHood said.
‘Growing Alarm and Outrage’
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said in a statement that he is watching the events in Egypt with “growing alarm and outrage” and that he felt “fear for the safety of all the employees of these NGOs.”
At a previously scheduled press conference in Cairo, Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, repeatedly warned that, before Egypt can get its annual aid for the U.S., the Obama administration must certify to Congress that the country is making progress toward democracy.
Egypt has received an average of $2 billion a year in aid from the U.S. since 1979, largely for military purposes, according to the Congressional Research Service, the non-partisan research arm for Congress.
“Obviously any action that creates tension between our governments makes the whole package more difficult,” Posner said yesterday, according to a transcript provided by the State Department.
Egypt’s economy is struggling and the nation is currently pursuing $500 million loans from both the World Bank and the African Development Bank. It is also negotiating a 1.1 percent interest rate for a $3.2 billion loan it officially requested from the International Monetary Fund earlier this month.
Posner said that keeping Egypt economically stable is important to the U.S. “Right now we are determined to provide, to make sure through the IMF and other sources that we provide, the kind of support that Egypt needs in the short term,” he said.
Craner said that IRI was told the Americans weren’t being allowed to leave because “there is a possibility of trials and it could be quite soon” and therefore the authorities didn’t want them leaving the country.
The other organizations affected include Freedom House, a watchdog group that advocates for democracy and human rights, and the National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy group affiliated with the Democratic Party.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that at least three or four Americans had been barred from leaving Egypt and that the matter was being taken up at the highest levels.
“Even up to the level of the president, we’ve been working on this issue,” Nuland said, referring to Obama’s call with Tantawi. Patterson, the U.S. ambassador, has been very involved, Nuland said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr of Egypt over the weekend as well.
Nuland said that, despite assurances from Egyptians in December that they would soon return computers and materials confiscated from the NGOs during the raids, that hasn’t happened.
“We had these raids on the NGOs; we had property confiscated; we had staff interrogated, this kind of thing, so we have not yet resolved this situation,” Nuland said at the State Department daily news briefing. “As we watch this Egyptian process of transition to democracy, we have seen some positive steps and we’ve seen some issues that are of concern.”
The groups were targeted in part for not being properly registered in Egypt, Craner said. He said his group has been trying to register for five years and has been stymied, a claim Nuland backed up.
“IRI, NDI have been active in Egypt for previous elections they have wanted to register,” Nuland said in a briefing yesterday.
Lawyers for the National Democratic Institute received verbal notification from the judge’s office that six of its non-Egyptian staff were subject to a travel ban, Julie Hughes, the country director of the Washington-based group, said.
“We got no explanation,” Hughes said in a telephone interview. “We were told that we would receive a written notification on Sunday.”
Three of the staffers covered by the decision are U.S. citizens, according to Hughes, who said she is also banned from traveling.
The December raids led human rights groups to question the Egyptian government’s commitment to democracy after taking power from former President Hosni Mubarak.
The army, which has accused “foreign hands” of fomenting unrest in the country, has come under renewed pressure from protesters to hand over power to civilians.