Wall Street Journal: American NGO Workers Seek Refuge at U.S. Embassy in Amid Egyptian Crackdown on Democracy Organizations

U.S. Embassy Sheltering Americans in Egypt
The Wall Street Journal
By Carol E. Lee and Julian E. Barnes

A group of American citizens have sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo in the midst of a Egyptian government crackdown against U.S. democracy and rights organizations.

The developments come as U.S. officials initiate a new round of diplomacy, including a call by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the head of the Egypt’s military, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to urge the lifting of travel restrictions.

White House press secretary Jay Carney confirmed Monday that a handful of U.S. citizens are at the U.S. embassy, but did not say how many Americans were there or whether they included Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“We’re not aware that they’re in any danger,” he said. “These are citizens who have been told they cannot leave Egypt.”

The State Department said the U.S. embassy invited “a handful” of the Americans, and that they accepted.

“This was a unique situation,” said Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman. “The decision was made by the mission to allow them to stay.”

She disputed reports that the group is seeking to avoid the possibility of arrest by Egyptians for their pro-democracy activities. “There is no expectation any of these individuals are seeking to avoid any kind of judicial process,” Ms. Nuland said, adding that U.S. groups in fact encourage adherence to legal processes in countries in which they work.

Mr. LaHood and a group of Americans were prevented from leaving Cairo earlier this month in the midst of an investigation by the government into the operation of foreign non-governmental groups. Mr. LaHood works for the International Republican Institute.

As part of the U.S. response, Mr. Panetta, the Defense Secretary, urged Egyptian Field Marshal Tantawi in a phone call to lift the ban on travel by American citizens who wish to leave Egypt, George Little, the Pentagon press secretary said Monday.

In a statement, Mr. Little said that Mr. Panetta expressed concern over the restrictions placed on non-profit organizations operating in Egypt. The call, placed over the weekend, was at least the second Mr. Panetta has placed to Field Marshall Tantawi to express concern over the Egyptian government’s pressure on the pro-democracy organizations. The last such call was Dec. 30.

Mid-level U.S. officials also planned to press U.S. concerns with a group of senior Egyptian generals who landed in Washington on Sunday to try to mend one of the most serious rifts in years with the U.S.

U.S. officials have been trying to remain hopeful about changes in Egypt since the government of former President Hosni Mubarak fell last year. “There are challenges that remain, but it’s important to remember that Egypt has come a long way,” Mr. Carney, the White House spokesman, said Monday.

But the frustration has become apparent as the military holds onto power and cracks down on dissent, jeopardizing $1.3 billion a year in U.S. assistance.

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