Key Washington-based nongovernmental groups are worried that their employees working in Egypt may be put on trial after several were told they couldn't leave the country. This development may sharply escalate the tensions between the United States and Egypt that have existed since the authorities raided the groups' Cairo offices this winter.
The International Republican Institute’s country director, Sam LaHood—coincidentally, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s son—was barred from leaving the country this weekend and is on a no-fly list along with four other IRI employees. Six more people from the National Democratic Institute, another civil-society organization monitoring the parliamentary elections there, are also on the list.
“I had been nagging [LaHood] to leave the country because his name started to appear in the paper, along with his dad’s name,” IRI's president, Lorne Craner, told National Journal. For Craner, the fear is much bigger. In late December, Egyptian authorities raided three key American civil-society organizations -- IRI, NDI, and Freedom House -- and those people on the no-fly list were recently called in for interviews with Egyptian judges. They were asked sensitive political questions about accusations that they had been "robbing" the country's poor, Craner said.
“When the Egyptian authorities were asked, ‘Why would you put people on the no fly list?’ … [they answered]: ‘There may be trials, in which case we don’t want these people leaving the country,'" Craner said. "That’s the worry."
Egypt's caretaker government has been ramping up criticism of American funding for these civil-society organizations, accusing them of interfering in domestic politics and stirring unrest; activists view the charges as trumped-up and continue to rail against the military's repression of protesters and seeming unwillingness to transfer power to civilian control. The December raid sharply escalated this conflict; many saw it as a move by the caretaker government against U.S. support for democracy-building in the country. NDI, for instance, receives U.S. funding to train Egyptians to better equip them for the political arena.
Any move to put the U.S. personnel on trial would be sure to spark a firestorm on Capitol Hill, where several lawmakers have voiced concern about the raid on the Cairo offices. The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on Thursday that he has watched with “growing alarm and outrage” the way the Egyptian government is treating NGOs working to support civil society there.
“It is worrying enough that Sam and his fellow NGO workers have been singled out by name in Egyptian state-owned media; it is outrageous that these individuals would be held against their will by Egyptian authorities and prohibited from leaving the country,” McCain said in a statement. “These individuals and the organizations that employ them have broken no laws."
Julie Hughes, Egypt’s country director for NDI, found out she was on a no-fly list on Thursday; she had home leave scheduled for February. “My family’s not going to be pleased,” she said in a telephone interview from Cairo. “I hope this doesn’t go to trial.”
NDI was accredited to observe parliamentary elections—just before the office was raided. Since then, authorities have not returned anything to the group. “No computers, equipment, papers, or cash has been returned,” Hughes said.
McCain called on the Egyptian government and military council to cease the harassment. “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.”