Egypt has banned the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and at least five other Americans from leaving the country, officials said Thursday, heightening tensions over an Egyptian investigation into groups that promote democracy and human rights.
The State Department's highest human rights official, Michael Posner, said the move raised concerns about Egypt's transition to democracy after Hosni Mubarak's ouster and could jeopardize badly needed American aid.
The debate over the role of non-governmental organizations in Egypt comes amid a wider struggle over the direction of the country nearly one year after the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11.
The military rulers who assumed power have blamed "foreign elements" for the recent unrest and cracked down on rights groups, further straining ties with their U.S. ally. The U.S. Congress has passed legislation linking the continuation of American aid to pro-democratic reforms, including allowing non-governmental organizations to operate.
The travel ban became public after Sam LaHood, Egypt director for the Washington-based International Republican Institute, went to Cairo's airport on Saturday to catch a flight and was told by an immigration official that he couldn't leave.
"I asked her why I was denied, she said she didn't know. I asked how to fix it, and she said she didn't know," said LaHood, 36. An hour later, a man gave him back his passport and escorted him to the curb, LaHood said. "It's a dark signal for groups who are interested in doing this kind of work."
Meghan Keck, a spokeswoman for LaHood's father - a former congressman from Illinois and the only Republican in President Barack Obama's Cabinet - declined to comment.
The IRI, which is connected to the Republican party, monitored Egypt's recent parliamentary elections. It also was one of 17 organizations targeted in raids last month by Egyptian security forces, who sealed doors with wax and hauled off cash, computers and boxes of files.
The U.S. and the U.N. denounced the raids, but the Egyptian government defended them as part of a legitimate investigation into whether the groups were operating in the country legally.
Sen. John McCain blasted Egypt's handling of the issue in a statement Thursday, saying the American groups had made every effort to comply with Egyptian law.
He warned that continued restrictions on civil society groups "could set back the long-standing partnership between the United States and Egypt."
A lawyer later told LaHood he has been accused of two crimes: managing an unregistered NGO and receiving funds from an unregistered NGO, namely, his salary. If convicted, LaHood said, he could face a fine and between six months and five years in prison.
LaHood said his organization applied for official status when it began operating in Egypt in 2005. The government never gave it a definitive answer, though LaHood says the organization was in frequent communication with the Foreign Ministry about its activities.
Other organizations also have operated in Egypt for years in the same legal limbo.
Posner told reporters in Cairo Thursday that non-governmental organizations in Egypt operate in a "difficult environment" and called on Egyptian authorities to "redress the situation."
"All need to have the ability to operate openly, freely, without constraint, not based on the content of their work," he said.
Posner pointed to recent U.S. legislation requiring Egypt to verify certain benchmarks during its transition to democracy in order to continue to receive American aid. He said that antidemocratic moves could affect U.S. aid to Egypt, one the world's largest recipients.
"Obviously, any action that creates tension between our governments makes the whole package more difficult," he said.
The pressure on non-governmental organizations follows frequent accusations by Egyptian authorities blaming "foreign hands" for continued demonstrations and violence between protesters and security forces.
It remains unclear how many people are affected by the travel ban.
Other American organizations raided include Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute, which also monitored Egypt's recent elections.
LaHood said his lawyer has been told that four of the group's employees, three Americans and one European, are on the list.
A spokeswoman for Freedom House, Mary McGuire, said she was unaware of any change in the employees' status.
Lisa Hughes, director of the Egypt office of the National Democratic Institute, said Egyptian authorities have said that six staffers are on the list, three Americans and three Serbs. All have been interrogated about the group's activities.
Hughes, who is on the list, was planning fly home to the U.S. next month, she said. Her organization was also raided in December.
"I think we would be silly not to be concerned," she said. "We were concerned the moment armed men showed up at our office door, and this has done nothing to calm those concerns."
Hundreds of Egyptian protesters, meanwhile, remained camped out in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, a day after the area was flooded by several hundred thousands of people to mark the first anniversary of the uprising that has changed the political landscape of the country, giving rise to Islamists who were long suppressed under Mubarak's rule.
In an effort to assuage concerns it is seeking control of the country, the top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as the biggest player in the first post-Mubarak parliament, said his group did not intend to back any Islamist in presidential elections now scheduled to be held before the end of June.
"We are joining the rest of the nationalist forces in choosing a person who enjoys consensus without prejudices to anyone," Mohammed Badei said, according to Egypt's state news agency.