The Envoy Talks to IRI's Lorne Craner About Staff Being Barred From Leaving Egypt

January 26, 2012

Egypt bars son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, NGO colleagues from leaving
The Envoy

By Laura Rozen

Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the head of the International Republican Institute's (IRI) Cairo office, was blocked from departing Egypt earlier this week. He, along with a dozen other colleagues from American non-government organizations (NGO), have been placed on an Egyptian "no-fly" list, officials with IRI told Yahoo News Thursday.

The younger LaHood was blocked at passport control when he went to the Cairo airport Saturday, Lorne Craner, the head of the IRI, a Washington-based pro-democracy non-government organization, told Yahoo News.

The organization is raising awareness of the situation now because, despite calls from several high ranking American officials to Egyptian leaders to discuss the case, the situation does not appear closer to being resolved.

President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of IRI, "have all been calling, they have all had very honest conversations with Egyptian leaders," Craner said. "And not only is nothing getting better, things are getting worse."

"We are all scratching our heads over here," Craner continued. "I did two tours at State and one at the NSC. If the president called someone, something gets worked out."

The White House and State Department acknowledged ongoing efforts to try to resolve the matter.

"Yes, we have raised the issue of several U.S. citizens not being allowed to depart [the country] with the Egyptian government, along with the broader issue of NGOs," an administration official told Yahoo News Thursday.

"Several US citizens have been questioned by judges in connection with the Egyptian government's investigation of NGOs and are currently restricted from leaving Egypt," a State Department official told Yahoo News Thursday. "We are working with the Government of Egypt to lift the travel restrictions and allow these individuals to come home as quickly as possible."

Last month, Egyptian police raided the Cairo offices of IRI and several other NGOs, including the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, confiscating records and computers. The raids were ordered by the Egyptian prosecutors' office, which is purportedly investigating alleged foreign funding of NGOs operating in the country.

Craner said the younger LaHood's name began appearing in Egyptian newspapers a couple days after those raids--in reports that noted his familial connection to the US transportation secretary. The reports prompted Craner to start "nagging" the younger LaHood to leave the country.

Ray LaHood, a former Republican lawmaker from Illinois, is the only Arab-American member of Obama's cabinet. But Craner believed LaHood is not being targeted because of that, but because he makes a high profile "target of opportunity."

"Suddenly Sam's name turned up in newspaper in Egypt,....a few days after police show up armed" at their office, Craner said. "He was the first one on the no-fly list who happened to go out to the airport. I had been nagging him to leave."

LaHood is among the employees of the raided organizations who have been asked to come in for long interrogation sessions with the Egyptian's prosecutor office, Craner said. The employees on the no-fly list are a "subset" of those who have been questioned.

Middle East analysts note the irony of Egyptian prosecutors investigating whether the NGOs receive foreign funding, given the fact the U.S. government gives billions of dollars in military aid to Egypt. Other NGO officials suggested the problem is that the groups were not properly registered in Egypt, though IRI had been officially invited to send international monitors to observe Egypt's recent parliament elections.

"Egypt's military council accuses NGOs of foreign funding even though at least 20% of its budget - $1.3 billion - is foreign funded," noted Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, at the time of those raids.

But even before the latest incident, Congress had imposed several additional conditions before approving the next tranche of aid.

"All the signs on this NGO issue are in the wrong direction," said Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert with the Atlantic Council, who observed Egypt's recent parliamentary polls with IRI. Beyond the refusal to allow some NGO workers to leave the country, she said, a "new draft NGO law is as bad as or worse than the old one," on the books under the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year.

"This behavior is shameful and hurtful to Egyptians and the U.S.-Egypt relationship," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, in a press statement. "It should never have happened and [Egypt's ruling military council] SCAF should take steps to remedy the situation immediately."