Egypt has banned at least 10 US citizens and Europeans from leaving the country, including the son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, hiking tensions with Washington over a campaign by Egypt’s military against groups promoting democracy and human rights.
The US warned on Thursday that the campaign raised concerns about Egypt’s transition to democracy and could jeopardize US aid that Egypt’s battered economy badly needs after a year of unrest.
The travel ban was part of an Egyptian criminal investigation into foreign-funded democracy organizations after soldiers raided the offices of 10 such groups last month, including those of two US groups.
The investigation is closely intertwined with Egypt’s political turmoil since the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak nearly a year ago.
The generals who took power have accused “foreign hands” of being behind protests against their rule and frequently depict protesters as receiving foreign funds in a plot to destabilize the country.
Egyptian opponents of the military say the generals are trying to discredit the protesters in the eyes of the public and silence organizations they fear will undermine their management of the country.
Also surprising is the military’s willingness to clash with its longtime top ally, the US, over the issue, particularly since the army receives more than US$1 billion a year from Washington.
Last month’s raids brought sharp US criticism, and last week US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to emphasize “the role that these organizations can play in civil society,” US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Thursday.
The ban became public after Sam LaHood, Egypt director of the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), tried to fly out of Cairo on Saturday last week only to be informed by an immigration official that he could not leave.
“I asked her why I was denied, she said she didn’t know. I asked how to fix it, and she said she didn’t know,” said Sam LaHood, 36. An hour later, a man in civilian clothes gave him back his passport and escorted him to the curb, he said.
The IRI was among the groups raided last month, along with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and a number of Egyptian organizations. Both US groups, linked to the political parties of the same name, monitored Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections. In the raids, troops ransacked 17 offices belonging to the 10 organizations around the country, carting away computers and documents.
The Egyptian government said the raids were part of a legitimate investigation into whether the groups were operating legally.
US Senator John McCain blasted Egypt’s handling of the issue on Thursday, warning that continued restrictions on civil society groups “could set back the long-standing partnership between the US and Egypt.”
IRI and NDI officials said they have been trying since 2005 to register as required by law, but were left in legal limbo, never officially denied nor granted permission. Both groups continued to operate while keeping authorities abreast of their activities, they said.
Sam LaHood said he was told by his lawyer that he is under investigation on suspicion of managing an unregistered NGO and receiving “funds” from an unregistered NGO, namely his salary.
Two other Americans and a European with the IRI have also been banned from leaving the country, LaHood said his lawyer have been told. From the NDI, three Americans and three Serb employees are also on the list, according to its Egypt director Lisa Hughes.
The Department of State’s top human rights official, Michael Posner, said in Cairo on Thursday that such moves could jeopardize US aid to Egypt, one of the biggest recipients.
“All need to have the ability to operate openly, freely, without constraint, not based on the content of their work,” he said.
Posner pointed to recent US legislation that blocks annual aid to Egypt unless it takes certain steps. These include abiding by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, holding free and fair elections and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.”
The US is scheduled to give US$1.3 billion in military assistance and US$250 million in economic aid to Egypt this year. Washington has given Egypt an average of US$2 billion in economic and military aid a year since 1979, according to the US Congressional Research Service.
Egypt’s military has been locked in a confrontation for months with protesters who demand it immediately hand over power to civilians.
Hundreds of protesters camped on Thursday in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, a day after several hundred thousand people massed there to mark the one-year anniversary of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising.
On Thursday evening, hundreds moved from Tahrir and rallied in front of the state TV building, beating drums as they chanted for the “liberation” of state-run media from the military’s control. They projected video footage of soldiers beating protesters onto the building.
State TV has been a mouthpiece of the military, broadcasting its accusations against protesters. Activists demand it be restructured as an independent media institution.
“The media is still manipulated and projects the same lies,” protester Mahmoud Ragab said. “We will be here every day to let them know it is a revolution.”