Financial Times Covers Ban on Travel for IRI and NDI Staff

January 26, 2012

Egypt steps up crackdown on US rights groups
Financial Times

By Borzou Daragah

Egypt’s military authorities have banned the son of the US transport secretary and possibly dozens of others linked to US democracy-promotion organisations from leaving the country, heightening concerns about the powerful armed forces’ commitment to change.

The travel restrictions came to light after Sam LaHood, who heads the Egypt mission of the International Republican Institute, a US-funded organisation that monitored the recent parliamentary elections, was stopped at the airport and prevented from boarding a flight at the weekend.

The US Congress funds the IRI, which was launched by the Republican party, and Mr LaHood is the son of Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary.

“When they scanned my passport, they . . . took me off to the side,” said Mr LaHood “[An immigration official] came and told me I wasn’t going to be flying. She said I was forbidden from travelling.”

Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour at the US State Department, said the move raised concerns about Egypt’s transition to democracy following the uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak last year, and could jeopardise US aid.

The US – which has given Egypt’s military rulers billions of dollars in the decades since Egypt made peace with Israel – has passed legislation linking continuation of aid to pro-democratic reforms, including allowing non-governmental organisations to operate.

IRI officials said four of their expatriate employees had been barred from leaving the country and they believe dozens more from other organisations are on a list of those forbidden to travel.

Barring individuals from travelling abroad without formally charging them with a crime is a practice commonly used by secret police in Arab dictatorships to terrorise dissidents and political opponents.

The military rulers who assumed power have blamed “foreign elements”’ for recent unrest and cracked down on rights groups, further straining ties with their US ally.

Late last month, Egyptian security forces stormed the offices of a dozen or so US funded organisations in addition to the IRI, including the National Democratic Institute, which trains Egyptians in grassroots political activism and election monitoring.

Other groups targeted have exposed human rights abuses and corruption, including within the military. The authorities have accused them of operating in the country and receiving foreign funding without proper permits.

Despite assuring US officials that premises and contents would be handed back, security forces continue to bar the organisations from their offices and have summoned staff to lengthy interior ministry interrogations.

“What’s concerning to us is that despite indications or assurances from the Egyptian government that the actions taken a month ago with the raids would be addressed, the situation has only gotten worse,” said Lisa Gates, a spokesman for the Washington based IRI. “We still have not gotten our files returned, our computers returned or our cash returned.”

John McCain, US senator, attacked Egypt’s handling of the issue in a statement on Thursday, saying the US groups had made every effort to comply with Egyptian law.

He warned that continued restrictions on civil society groups “could set back the longstanding partnership between the US and Egypt”.

Insiders say Egypt’s military oligarchs may be angry over a US decision last year to give some aid money directly to democracy groups without funnelling it through the Egyptian authorities or giving them the final say over who should receive it.

“Aid used to go to from the US to the Egyptian government and the Egyptian government would approve it,” said one official. “This money that NDI and IRI have gotten is money that used to be given to organisations indirectly through the Egyptian government.”