The Guardian: Egyptian Raids of Pro-democracy NGOs are Unprecedented

Americans seek refuge at US embassy in Cairo
The Guardian
Ben Quinn and agencies

Three Americans barred by Egyptian authorities from leaving the country have sought refuge at the United States embassy in Cairo. Tensions between the two states have escalated following unprecedented raids by security forces on a number of human rights and pro-democracy organisations working in Egypt.

Organisations targeted during the December raids included the US-government funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) – founded by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright – and the International Republican Institute (IRI), whose chairman is Republican senator John McCain.

Both organisations are affiliated with the two major US political parties and the crackdown has been viewed as highly provocative in Washington, which underwrites military aid to Egypt to the sum of $1.3bn (£827m) annually.

Egyptian authorities are preventing at least six Americans and four Europeans from leaving the country, citing an investigation opened last month when heavily armed security forces raided the offices of 10 international organisations. Egyptian officials have defended the raids as part of legitimate inquiry into the groups’ work and funding.

Those banned from leaving Egypt include Sam LaHood, son of the US transport secretary, Ray LaHood, but officials would not say whether he is at the embassy. The younger LaHood heads the Egypt office of the IRI and said last week that three other employees of the organisation were on the no-fly list – two American and one European.

The NDI said last week that three Americans and three Serb employees are on the list. However, it is understood that none of them are among those who have taken refuge at the US embassy.

A US state department spokeswoman, Kate Starr, told reporters in Washington on Sunday: “A handful of US citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while waiting for permission to depart Egypt.”

Another official said three Americans were at the embassy, adding that the move was not because the US feared their imminent arrest.

US officials have warned that restrictions on civil society groups could hinder aid to Egypt, which would be a major blow to the country as it struggles with economic woes and continued turmoil since the popular uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak being ousted last year. Egypt’s military has been locked in a confrontation for months with protesters who demand it immediately hand over power to civilians.

The December raids brought sharp US criticism, and last week President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with Egyptian military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi about the issue.

Recent US legislation could block annual aid to Egypt unless it takes certain steps. These include abiding by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, holding free and fair elections and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law”.

The US is due to give $1.3bn in military assistance and $250m in economic aid to Egypt in 2012. Washington has given Egypt an average of $2bn in economic and military aid a year since 1979, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Egyptian news agency Mena said in December that the 17 “civil society organisations” had been targeted during the raids as part of an investigation into foreign funding of such groups. The Egyptian generals who took power following Mubarak’s fall nearly a year ago have accused “foreign hands” of being behind protests against their rule and frequently depict the protesters as receiving foreign funds in a plot to destabilise the country.

Other groups that were raided, according to activists, included the German NGO Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung, which supports political dialogue, the Washington-based Freedom House, and the Egyptian Public Budget Observatory.

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