Peoria Journal Star: Egypt Should Lift Travel Ban on Pro-democracy Workers
You read about these things from a distance most of the time, American citizens detained in foreign countries that have on-again, off-again relations with the United States, prevented from leaving, told they're being held and interrogated until the conclusion of some bogus "investigation," sometimes worse.
Frequently, those responsible are trying to make some sort of statement that has little or nothing to do with the people they've put in the middle of it, and everything to do with trying to cement their own political foothold. That sense of a basic injustice being done flares up inside for a second, and then you shrug and move on to matters closer to home.
So consider what Egypt has done with former Peorian Sam LaHood, a 1993 Notre Dame graduate and son of former congressman and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, personal.
Recently, Sam LaHood and five other Americans showed up at Cairo's airport to be told they weren't going anywhere. He is the Egypt-based director for the International Republican Institute, a nongovernmental organization or NGO (though it does receive government money) that, according to its website, attempts to "advance freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, democratic governance and the rule of law." Given what's happened in Egypt over the last year, between the Tahrir Square protests of the Arab Spring and the subsequent ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, it shouldn't be a surprise to any knowledgable person that LaHood's organization is operating in Egypt, promoting the principles for which this nation stands.
Yet LaHood's office, and those of similar organizations including the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, were raided and shut down in December, with heavily armed Egyptian police confiscating the equipment and files inside. Not so coincidentally, Egypt is in the midst of parliamentary elections as it transitions from a military to an ostensibly civilian government.
Interestingly, LaHood's organization had been formally recognized by the Egyptian government previously to help monitor those elections, according to reporting in the New York Times. Now the supposed charge is that IRI, those other NGOs and their employees are suspected of - one awaits the gasps - running unregistered organizations. With the elections, you'd think Egyptian leaders would want LaHood out of town. Indeed, how about a show of hands as to whether those military leaders have any intention whatsoever of acknowledging the results of a free and fair election or handing over power afterwards?
OK, so governments sometimes flex their muscle to try to prove their independence to their own people. While a Cabinet member's kid is no more or less important than any other American citizen, well, consider this a case of message emphatically sent, message clearly received. Perhaps Egypt's sitting government no longer wants a relationship of the kind it has long had with the U.S.
Washington should first work through diplomatic channels to try to win the release of these Americans, of course, as it no doubt already is. Uncle Sam can place restrictions on Americans who wish to visit, as tourism is a significant part of Egypt's economy. Certainly, the Obama administration should not hesitate to use the leverage that some $1.5 billion-plus in planned military and economic aid in 2012 gives us with the Egyptian government - an average of $2 billion annually since 1979. Money always comes with strings attached; they're not obligated to take it. Reportedly, the White House has already made it clear to Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi that what Congress giveth it can taketh away. Perhaps some of that cash ended up in his pockets in the past. Maybe Israel, with which Egypt has been at peace for more than three decades, would appreciate a bump in foreign aid. Maybe other political factions within Egypt would.
If all that fails, well, there's no shortage of other options to be explored.
As always, there are apologists for Egypt or those who hold grudges of one sort or another against Obama or the LaHoods - they like to take their potshots online, almost always anonymously, of course. Some of their suspicions play into Egypt's allegations of "hidden hands" trying to "bring down the state." While this nation's history in the Middle East is not without its missteps, little about America's agenda seems to be hidden here - an honestly elected government - and there's no reason to apologize for that. This latest Egyptian behavior, which includes violent attacks on its own citizens, is indicative of a nation that few among its defenders locally would want to live in.
May Egypt choose its path carefully, and may a safe and secure Sam LaHood be able to travel freely again - and reunite with family - soon.