New York Times Talks to IRI's Lorne Craner About Staff Detained in Egypt
WASHINGTON — Building tensions between the United States and Egypt flashed into the open Thursday when Cairo confirmed that it had barred at least a half-dozen Americans from leaving the country and the Obama administration threatened explicitly to withhold its annual aid to the Egyptian military.
The travel ban came to light on Thursday after the International Republican Institute, an American-backed democracy-building group, disclosed that the Egyptian authorities had stopped its Egypt director, Sam LaHood, at the Cairo airport on Saturday before he could board a flight to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. LaHood is the son of Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation and a former Republican congressman from Illinois. He is one of six Americans working for the Republican Institute or its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute, whom Egypt has blocked from leaving as part of a politically charged criminal investigation into their activities.
Just a day before Mr. LaHood was detained temporarily, President Obama had warned Egypt’s leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, that this year’s American military aid hinged on satisfying new Congressional legislation requiring that Egypt’s military government take tangible steps toward democracy, said three people briefed on the conversation.
Mr. Obama referred specifically to the criminal inquiry into several democracy-building groups with foreign financing, including the Republican Institute, the people who were briefed said, and he made clear that Egypt had not fulfilled the Congressional requirements, but Field Marshal Tantawi did not seem to believe him.
Then, after the travel ban on the Americans became public on Thursday, the administration made the warning public as well. “It is the prerogative of Congress to say that our future military aid is going to be conditioned on a democratic transition,” Michael H. Posner, an assistant secretary of state responsible for human rights issues, said at a previously scheduled press conference in Cairo on Thursday.
Raids last month on nongovernmental organizations, along with respect for basic rights, he said, are “very much a part of that package.” He said repeatedly that the military aid was now at stake and that the treatment of the American-backed groups had set off a Congressional outcry. “Obviously any action that creates tension with our government makes the whole package more difficult.”
State Department officials said that it was the first time in three decades that American military aid to Egypt was at risk. That aid, $1.3 billion a year, has always been sacrosanct as the price the United States pays to preserve Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Though members of Congress have talked this year of imposing conditions on American aid to Egypt, the Obama administration had previously opposed the idea.
The White House negotiated intensely to allow the president the option of waiving the conditions, if necessary, in the name of national security. Now Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state, is required to certify that Egypt is making democratic progress — carrying out “policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion, and due process of law” — before releasing the aid this fiscal year.
Representative Frank R. Wolf, a Republican from Virginia who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Egyptian government continued to flout American efforts and to undermine democratic rights. “This is out of control,” Mr. Wolf said on Thursday. “If the administration follows the law, there’s no way they can continue the aid.”
The issue has already become subject of “an active debate” within the administration, one senior State Department official said. “I hesitate to say that we have clear assurances of what’s going to happen,” the official said. “I think they understand the importance we attach to this issue and the value actually for Egypt on moving ahead on these questions.”
A tug of war between Washington and Cairo over American aid for Egyptian human rights and democracy-building groups goes back to the era of former President Hosni Mubarak. To maintain control over organizations that might pose potential challenges to his government, Mr. Mubarak required nonprofit groups to obtain licenses, which were almost never issued.
Instead, the generals have echoed the Mubarak government’s refrain that any unrest was the work of “foreign hands.” Often, the military-led government has pointed specifically at Washington, suggesting that the United States was financing Egyptian groups behind the frequent turmoil in the streets.
Last spring, the military-led government initiated a formal criminal investigation into foreign financing of nonprofit groups. Then, in December, investigators accompanied by squads of heavily armed riot police officers raided as many as seven rights groups, including four backed by American government funds. The raids were heavily criticized by American officials, lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Sam LaHood said in an interview that his organization had cooperated with the inquiry, which is being conducted by judges at a court in Cairo. At the request of investigators, he had already signed a statement on a copy of his passport pledging to be available for his next interrogation. He said that 17 members of the group’s staff had been interrogated and three called back for a second session.
“It is not like we were ducking them,” he said.
In Cairo, officials of the Justice Ministry and the public prosecutor’s office could not be reached for comment. Amr Roshdy, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said the travel restrictions were “a purely judicial process,” imposed at the request of the attorney general. Told that the furor over the handling of the investigations could affect American aid to Egypt, he paused and then said, “Really?”
Since the fiscal year began in October, the United States has not provided any money, though portions of last year’s budget are still in the pipeline. The administration has budgeted an additional $250 million in economic assistance, but that is not subject to the certification. All aid, however, is subject to a separate requirement that Egypt abide by the peace treaty with Israel. Officials have said that the current military funds will dry up by March.
The administration has welcomed many recent steps in Egypt, including the seating of a new Parliament this week after elections that were broadly viewed as free and fair, and the partial lifting of a longstanding emergency law. But the raids against the nonprofit groups have become politically explosive.
In addition to Mr. LaHood, four other employees from the Republican Institute, including two Americans, had been barred from travel. Officials of the National Democratic Institute said that six of its employees had been banned, including three Americans.
Lorne W. Craner, of the Republican Institute, noted that the Egyptian government had promised senior American officials that they would close the investigation and return documents, computers and cash that were seized.
“Here we are all these weeks later and all these assurances later, and things are getting worse,” Mr. Craner said in Washington.
Mr. LaHood said that he wondered if he might be brought up on trial. “It is ludicrous, but the whole thing is ludicrous,” he said.