CAIRO — Egypt has barred at least 10 American and European civil society workers — including the son of a senior Obama administration official — from leaving the country in a sign that the ruling generals are extending their crackdown on foreign pro-democracy groups.
Sam LaHood, the director of the Egyptian program of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said Thursday that four employees of the institute had been banned from traveling outside Egypt. He learned he was included when he was prevented from leaving via the Cairo airport Saturday.
“It’s absolutely an escalation,” LaHood said. “It’s a de facto detention.”
U.S. officials were outraged last month when Egyptian forces raided the Cairo offices of the International Republican Institute and other American and Egyptian civil society organizations in a continuing campaign to blame the groups for fueling unrest with their “foreign funds.” Special forces and prosecutors sealed the offices and carted away computers, cellphones and files. The National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a German nongovernmental organization were among those raided.
After some members of Congress threatened to push for an end to Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion military aid package, most analysts thought the matter would be resolved quickly through diplomatic channels. Egyptian officials promised that the confiscated equipment would be returned and that the groups were in the pipeline for official registration, which the government has withheld for years.
Instead, it appears that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has no plans to scale back what Egyptian and American nonprofit workers have long described as a campaign to depict them as foreign agents, a dangerous label that already has prompted xenophobic attacks.
State media and nightly talk shows portrayed such groups as working to undermine Egypt’s sovereignty and stability even before the popular uprising that ended the rule of former U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak last year.
This week, Egyptian media reported that up to 40 foreigners would be referred to court next month on charges of “illicit foreign funding.” Sam LaHood and other employees of the targeted groups said they were aware of a judicial investigation but had no information on possible charges.
“We’ve had 17 employees go in for 20 interviews,” LaHood said. “The judges are still investigating.”
The online news site Politico first reported the travel ban late Wednesday.
Republican Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the International Republican Institute, issued a statement Thursday expressing “alarm and outrage” at what he called the Egyptian government’s harassment of American nongovernmental organizations. He said the groups had made every effort to comply with the legal registration process, yet the Egyptian government had failed to fulfill promises to resolve the matter.
“This crisis has taken a new and disturbing turn with reports that the Egyptian government is prohibiting employees of these NGOs, including American citizens, from leaving the country,” McCain said.
“I deeply regret that this crisis has escalated to the point that it now endangers the lives of American citizens and could set back the long-standing partnership between the United States and Egypt.”
Egyptian government officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
The International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which also is U.S.-based, receive American government funding, and they’d been assisting Egyptian political parties in their campaigns for the recent parliamentary elections, the first since Mubarak resigned last February.
Julie Hughes, the Egypt country director for the National Democratic Institute, said Thursday that she and five co-workers were among those banned from travel. Three of them are Americans, she said; a fourth American is scheduled for interrogation Sunday and also might be barred from leaving.
Hughes said the group suspended its training programs after the raids last month, but it still fielded observers for the last round of the parliamentary elections. Polls for the upper house of Parliament begin soon and the National Democratic Institute has received authorization to continue its observer mission, she said.
Hughes said Egyptian NGO leaders were renewing calls to amend the registration process for civil society groups, whose activities were curtailed and employees scrutinized in the Mubarak era. She said Egyptian groups had tried twice in the past decade to “have the law changed because of too much government control.”
“Transitions are hard and, if anything is going to come of this, I hope it’s a good dialogue about registration,” she said.