Egyptian authorities are barring several U.S. citizens — including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s son — from leaving the country after Egyptian government forces raided the offices of Washington-backed groups monitoring recent parliamentary elections there.
Sam LaHood is director of the Egyptian program for the International Republican Institute, a nongovernmental organization with close ties to GOP congressional leadership. He attempted to board an airplane in Cairo on Saturday to leave the country but was told he was on a “no-fly list” and was refused permission to depart.
These Americans now find themselves caught in a power struggle between the United States and Egyptian governments over the country’s future direction. Direct intervention by President Barack Obama and other top administration officials has failed to resolve the NGO dispute, although U.S. officials are hopeful it can be defused soon.
The no-fly order for Americans is a new wrinkle — and ups the ante politically.
And adding a Washington twist to the tense situation, three high-powered K Street lobbyists — Bob Livingston, Toby Moffett and Tony Podesta — have been doing work on behalf of the Egyptian government by trying to shift the blame for the standoff on to the NGOs, POLITICO reported earlier this week.
The younger LaHood and at least four other IRI employees — including two other Americans — were barred from boarding their flight on Saturday, said Lorne Craner, president of IRI. The NGO and other U.S.-based groups sent representatives to monitor the Egyptian elections, the first since the revolution that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak last February.
Sam LaHood and other IRI employees “have not been given a reason” as to why they could not leave, and they still have their passports for now, Craner told POLITICO in an interview Wednesday.
“What we have heard is that they are amongst those the [Egyptian] government, the judges, who have been charged with prosecuting the case against IRI, have decided should not be allowed to leave the country.”
Without naming Sam LaHood, a State Department official confirmed that several U.S. citizens were being refused permission to leave Egypt.
“Several U.S. citizens and others are currently not being allowed to depart Egypt in connection with the government’s investigation into NGOs,” the official confirmed. “We are disappointed that these restrictions were imposed, and we are working with the government of Egypt to lift them and allow these Americans to come home as quickly as possible. We hope to have this issue resolved within the next couple of days. Our embassy in Cairo continues to monitor this matter closely.”
Ray LaHood, a former seven-term Illinois member of the House of Representatives who became Transportation secretary in January 2009, would not comment on the situation.
IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House were among 17 foreign NGOs raided by Egyptian security forces on Dec. 29. Egyptian security forces reportedly seized computers, documents and tens of thousands of dollars in cash during the raid. They shut down the NGOs’ offices and, until now, have not allowed them to reopen. Some employees, including Americans, were questioned by Egyptian investigators, with some being threatened with imprisonment if they didn’t cooperate.
Egyptian officials said they are looking into “foreign influence” during the recent elections, although congressional sources and U.S. experts believe it is more over the future of U.S. aid to Egypt and who controls it.
The crisis is especially awkward for the Obama administration, not just because of the personal impact on the president’s Cabinet but also because it has made it almost impossible to meet the conditions set by Congress before promised U.S. military aid can be released to the Egyptian government. The United States provides Egypt — a top American ally in the Middle East since the 1979 Camp David Accords — with roughly $2 billion in aid annually, most of which comes in the form of military assistance.
Obama and Egyptian Field Marshal Tantawi spoke by telephone for about an hour on Jan. 20, and a White House readout of that call indicates that the NGO standoff was part of that discussion.
“The president reinforced the necessity of upholding universal principles and emphasized the important role that civil society, including nongovernmental organizations, have in a democratic society,” according to the summary of the call released by the White House. “He underscored that nongovernmental organizations should be able to operate freely.”
The call was prior to the younger LaHood being stopped at the airport, but the White House has been monitoring the situation closely with State being the lead agency in hopes of a resolution.
But the raid also provoked a backlash on Capitol Hill. A group of at least 10 senators, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, has threatened to slash U.S. aid to Egypt, over the government’s actions.
The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to request to comments for this report.
Sam LaHood seems to have attracted special attention from Egyptian authorities, although U.S. officials do not believe he is being targeted because of his father’s high-profile political post.
Several days after the raid, Sam LaHood’s name, as well as his father’s, began to appear in government-controlled newspapers in Cairo, Craner said.
Once that occurred, Craner, a former State Department and National Security Council official, directed the younger LaHood and his wife, who is also in Egypt, to leave. But once at the airport, they were not allowed to leave.
“Unfortunately, there has been no forward movement in this case, and a lot of things have gotten worse,” Craner said. “In the beginning, there was the raid, and we were told, ‘Don’t worry, your stuff will be returned, we’re really sorry this happened.’ Then it became, ‘No, no, no, we’re not going to return your stuff.’ Then it became, ‘OK, we’re questioning your staff.’ Then they started talking about prosecution of staff. And you can just picture an American citizen sitting in a cage in a Cairo courtroom. And now we’re told some of your staff are not allowed to leave the country.”
Craner added: “That’s very worrisome when there’s been that much engagement by the U.S. government and the Congress, and there’s no movement on behalf of the Egyptians.”
Les Campbell, head of NDI’s Mideast program, has said that none of his organization’s employees have tried to leave Egypt, but he also is concerned about the rising tension surrounding the NGO dispute.
“Temperatures are going up” he said. “Members of Congress are getting more agitated.”
Charles Dunne of Freedom House said his organization employs only Egyptian nationals in that country, and so far, none of them have been placed on the no-fly list, although he expects that to occur soon.
“According to our office director [in Cairo], they have not been placed on a no-fly list yet, but as this investigation proceeds, I would be very surprised if the [Egyptian] authorities don’t do the same with them,” Dunne said.
Dunne noted one of Freedom House’s employees left and returned to Egypt “about 10 days ago or so, and he had no problems going in or out, but this was before this latest development.”