Egyptian authorities have slapped a travel ban on several U.S. citizens working for non-governmental organizations, preventing them from leaving the country, officials said on Thursday.
“We understand that a number of Americans working for NGOs, including the IRI, have been barred from travelling,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights Michael Posner said in Cairo.
The United States quickly urged Egypt to lift travel bans placed on several U.S. pro-democracy activists.
“We are urging the government of Egypt to lift these restrictions immediately and allow these folks to come home as soon as possible,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
Among those banned from travel is Sam LaHood, Egypt director for the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the son of U.S. Secretary for Transportation Ray LaHood, an Egyptian airport official said.
The ban was issued following “the orders of the prosecutor general,” the airport official told AFP.
The move comes amid a crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs.
The order affects four IRI staff, including three Americans, and six from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), also including three U.S. citizens.
Sam LaHood had tried to fly out from Cairo on Saturday and was told that he could not leave, one NGO official said.
“We have received verbal notification that six NDI staff, three of them Americans, have been served travel bans,” another official, NDI Egypt director Julie Hughes, told Reuters, adding that she expected a formal written notification on Sunday.
It is likely to further strain relations between Egypt and the United States after prosecutors last month stormed the offices of groups including IRI as part of a probe into allegations of illegal funding from abroad.
Posner said the United States was “gravely concerned that organizations like IRI and like NDI (the National Democratic Institute) and Freedom House which have long worked in this country and around the world, are not able to operate as they do in many places in the world.”
NGOs “need to have the ability to operate openly, freely, without constraints,” said Posner, who discussed the matter with officials in Egypt.
The raids in December came after an order from judges tasked with investigating the groups’ foreign funding.
The groups allegedly did not obtain licenses to operate or permission from the foreign and social solidarity ministries, the prosecutor general's office had said in a statement.
The probe, which began last summer, coincided with Washington raising concerns with the ruling military about “anti-Americanism” in Egypt.
A cabinet source had told AFP the investigation was first launched in July by the ministry of international cooperation after the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, said the U.S. distributed $40 million to NGOs since Mubarak’s ouster in February.
The military enjoys close ties with Washington and receives more than $1 billion in U.S. aid annually.
It has since given the United States assurances that it will stop raids on American and other non-governmental organizations as well as return confiscated property.
The judges investigating the case have charged the four members of the IRI with managing an unregistered NGO and being paid employees of an unregistered organization, charges that could carry up to five years in jail, one NGO member said, according to Reuters.
Both the NDI and IRI receive some of their funding from U.S. government agencies and, while not formally part of the two main U.S. political parties, each has some loose affiliation with either the Republican or Democratic party.