CAIRO — A top U.S. official’s son who is working for a pro-democracy group in Egypt has been barred from leaving the country, along with at least five other Americans, escalating a crackdown on such groups by Egypt’s military government that has outraged the United States.
Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said Thursday that he learned of the travel ban only when he was turned away from the Cairo airport Saturday. He is the director of the Egyptian program of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based civil society organization.
IRI was one of three U.S.-based nonprofit groups in Cairo that were raided and shut down on Dec. 29 by Egyptian authorities, who accused the groups of using foreign funds to support unrest in Egypt.
After an outcry in Washington and in European capitals, the ruling generals appeared to retreat, promising President Obama and other top officials that the computers and other property confiscated from the three U.S.-based groups and at least four other nongovernmental organizations would be returned and their offices reopened.
But the offices remain closed, the equipment is still gone, and in an apparent escalation, a travel ban has been imposed on foreigners being investigated by the Egyptian government.
As many as 40 foreigners are now on a travel ban list as a result of the Egyptian investigation, said Scott Mastic, IRI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It’s absolutely an escalation,” Mastic said of the bans, which were first reported by Politico on Wednesday evening. “To have a strategic U.S. ally issue bans against American citizens is deeply troubling.”
Employees of IRI, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and Freedom House have been called in several times for questioning focused on foreign funding and the legality of their presence in Egypt. IRI said it was told by Egyptian judicial officials that if the case goes to court, trials would begin next month. A judicial official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that time frame.
“The implication is that these persons will be put on a list because there is an attempt to move to formally charge them and put people on trial,” Mastic said. “We are absolutely worried for their well-being.”
U.S. officials say they have pressed Egypt on the issue repeatedly and forcefully in almost daily conversations between the U.S. Embassy and the Egyptian government. This weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the issue in a call with Egypt’s foreign minister. President Obama also brought up the rights of NGOs specifically in a phone call last week.
“They are asserting that these people are subject to the judicial process, and so is the equipment,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “Our point is that whatever the formalities are here, they need to be concluded as quickly as possible.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also issued a statement, calling Egypt’s actions “outrageous.”
NGO workers appeared startled Thursday that Egypt’s military council, the largest recipient of U.S. aid, is willing to clash with its U.S. allies over American pro-democracy organizations working in the country.
“This is a very serious escalation, and it shows all NGOs are very vulnerable,” said Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch in Cairo.
In private, State Department officials have also told Egypt that its actions are jeopardizing U.S. aid to Egypt’s military, said Charles Dunne, the director of Middle East and North Africa programming for Freedom House. U.S. military aid to Egypt totals more than $1.3 billion a year.
Dunne said that so far he is unaware of any travel bans on Freedom House employees in Cairo, all of whom are Egyptian.
Despite the State Department’s intervention, the Egyptian government has given no sign of backing off its investigation of the American groups. Judging by recent questions directed to NGO members by Egyptian interrogators, it instead seems to be preparing to charge the groups with not registering their organizations and with providing foreign funding, the groups’ leaders say.
Both IRI and NDI applied for registration to work in Egypt during former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule but were told that the paperwork would probably never go through. To suppress dissent, Mubarak kept a tight lid on the work of civil society organizations. After Egypt’s uprising a year ago, Mastic said, the U.S. government encouraged IRI to begin democracy-building programs, and the issue has become a major point of friction between the United States and Egypt’s military rulers.
IRI and NDI renewed their registration applications recently at the request of the Egyptian government.