Wall Street Journal Covers IRI and NDI Staff Detained in Egypt
CAIRO—Egypt banned six American pro-democracy workers from leaving the country, including the son of a U.S. cabinet secretary, as relations between the country's military leaders and their longtime benefactors in Washington plumbed new lows.
The move came despite a personal appeal by President Barack Obama, who last Friday phoned Egypt's top general to underscore the importance of civil society.
The next day, Cairo Airport immigration officials told Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, that he was barred from leaving Egypt because he was the subject of an investigation for his work as the director of the Cairo office of the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded pro-democracy organization.
"Our attorney tells me this is like a hostage situation, and we're the hostage," the younger Mr. LaHood said Thursday. "Nobody wants a hostage to die, but they're playing hardball and they want to get something out of it."
At least six U.S. and four European employees of IRI and its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute, have been similarly barred from leaving Egypt, officials from the two organizations say. The groups have monitored elections and trained politicians in parties across Egypt's political spectrum.
For months, Egypt's council of ruling generals has expressed suspicion of Westerners in Egypt. Facing rolling protests following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, they have blamed "foreign hands" for destabilizing the country and its economy. Last summer, prosecutors targeted NDI, IRI and other organizations as part of a politically charged probe into foreign financing of non-governmental organizations in Egypt, where such funding must be government-approved.
That places the country's ruling generals in increasingly open conflict with their primary patron: Egypt's military has been one of the top recipients of U.S. military aid for more than three decades, receiving $1.3 billion from Washington in 2011.
Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pressed for the Americans' release Thursday.
The U.S. State Department's top human rights official, Michael Posner, who is in Cairo to discuss the NGO crackdown with Egypt's military-appointed transitional government, criticized the travel bans at a news conference Thursday.
"[Civil society organizations] need to have the ability to operate openly, freely and without constraint," he said.
Mr. Posner also said that American aid could be at risk if the democratic process stalls. "It is the prerogative of Congress to say that our future military aid is going to be conditioned on a democratic transition," Mr. Posner told reporters in Cairo.
The U.S. is urging Egypt to lift the restrictions on NGOs, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding that the administration has been raising such concerns for weeks. She pointed to recent elections as among the positive steps the U.S. is seeing Egypt taking in its transition to democracy.
IRI and NDI have powerful backers. IRI's chairman is Republican Senator John McCain. Former Senator majority leader Tom Daschle is a top official at NDI.
Sen. McCain's office expressed "outrage" Thursday at the Egyptian government's treatment of the groups. In a statement, he called on Egypt's military to "cease the harassment and unwarranted investigations" of the groups and said the action "could set back the long-standing partnership between the United States and Egypt."
The administration is in a diplomatic bind on the Egyptian issue, however, because it wants to promote political openness but also maintain stability in the longtime ally and safeguard Cairo's relations with Israel.
Both President Obama and Mrs. Clinton were criticized before last year's revolution for not pressing Mr. Mubarak hard enough for political changes. But Israel and important Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have been voicing concerns to Washington that a quick political transition in Cairo will result in the election of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.
Indeed, after Islamist politicians took more than 70% of Egypt's newly seated parliament in recent elections, the military leadership may now be conscious that it remains a vital avenue of influence for U.S. policymakers, said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Foundation. Egypt's latest moves may reflect an effort by the military to reassert its dominance after decades of taking its cues from Washington, he said.
Tensions between the sides have been building for months. Washington pleaded with Egypt to hold presidential elections ahead of parliamentary elections, in a bid to stave off the rise of the Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's military dismissed Washington's concerns, say former and current U.S. officials.
In September, as Egyptian protestors stormed the Israeli Embassy and pinned Israeli diplomats and security officers into an armored safe room, Egypt's top general, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, kept U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta hanging for hours before he took his phone call, according to a former U.S. official.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which communicates through news conferences and public statements, declined invitations to comment.
The relationship further soured in November, when clashes broke out between anti-military demonstrators and security forces. With protestors dying daily, the White House issued a surprise statement calling for the transfer of power to a civilian leadership as soon as possible, after months of urging Egypt's military to go slow in the transition.
A month later, Egyptian prosecutors raided and sealed the offices of NDI, IRI and a third U.S. group, Washington-based Freedom House. A German group and four established Egyptian human-rights and pro-democracy groups were also raided.
The military-appointed government has said the moves are strictly a judicial matter. But after a rebuke from Washington, Mr. Tantawi assured Mr. Panetta that the offices would be reopened and that seized cash and equipment would be returned, U.S. officials said at the time. That has yet to happen.
The IRI's Mr. LaHood, and Julie Hughes, the director of NDI's office in Cairo, said the offices of both organizations remain sealed. Seized property hasn't been returned, they said.
Amid the worsening ties, Congress waded into the battle last month, introducing a bill that would make military aid to Egypt conditional on the military's transfer of power to civilian democratically elected leaders and its respect for human rights.
Last Friday, President Obama called Mr. Tantawi and hailed the seating of Egypt's democratically elected Parliament. Mr. Obama also "underscored that non-governmental organizations should be able to operate freely," the White House said in a statement.
Mr. LaHood, at the airport the next day, learned he was barred from leaving the country.
While none of the NGOs' foreign employees have been detained or charged, Mr. LaHood said the travel bans could have been issued in preparation for his eventual arrest. The two judges who are leading the cases against the Egyptian and foreign groups didn't alert any of the foreign workers of their travel bans until Mr. LaHood attempted to leave the country.
Egypt's state news agency reported that 17 NGOs are under investigation. Many of the most prominent Egyptian civil society groups have long relied openly on aid from Western governments because the Egyptian government severely curtails any domestic funding sources.
The judges who are leading the case are in part investigating whether the NGOs are unregistered or funded by unregistered groups, Mr. LaHood said.
The NDI's Ms. Hughes said her group has been operating in Egypt since 2005 and has repeatedly applied for formal recognition from the Egyptian government. As late as last summer, Egyptian officials told Ms. Hughes that her registration application was still pending.
Delaying certification for human-rights groups was a common practice under the Mubarak regime that gave law enforcement officials a pretext for raiding or closing institutions they deemed subserversive.