CAIRO - Three American citizens barred from leaving Egypt have sought refuge at the US embassy in Cairo amid growing tensions between the two allies over an Egyptian investigation into foreign-funded prodemocracy groups.
The White House said yesterday it was disappointed with Egypt’s handing of the issue, which US officials have warned could stand in the way of more than $1 billion in badly needed US aid.
The growing dispute between the two longtime allies reflects the uncertainty as they redefine their relationship nearly one year after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak following an 18-day popular uprising.
Mubarak was a steadfast US ally, scrupulously maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and seeking to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians - a clear American interest.
Now, Egypt’s council of ruling generals, who took power when Mubarak stood down last Feb. 11, often accuse “foreign hands’’ of promoting protests against their rule.
At the same time, members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the new parliament, have suggested that they could seek to renegotiate parts of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, causing alarm in Israel and concern in Washington over the possibility that Egypt will no longer serve as its solid anchor in the Middle East.
Egypt’s investigation into foreign-funded organizations burst into view last month when heavily armed security forces raided 17 offices belonging to 10 prodemocracy and human rights groups, some US-based. United States and United Nations officials criticized the raids, which Egyptian officials defended as part of a legitimate investigation into the groups’ work and finances.
Last week Egypt barred at least six Americans and four Europeans who worked for US-based organizations from leaving the country.
They included Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the only Republican in President Obama’s Cabinet.
Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington that some of the Americans under investigation were in the embassy, although she would not identify them or their affiliations, citing privacy concerns.
“We can confirm that a handful of US citizens have opted to stay on the embassy compound in Cairo while awaiting permission to depart Egypt,’’ she said.
Nuland added that those seeking refuge in the embassy were not “seeking to avoid any kind of judicial process,’’ noting they had been interrogated before.
The US Foreign Affairs Manual states that such requests for refuge are generally granted only when the US citizen “would otherwise be in danger of serious harm.’’
Another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said three Americans were at the embassy.
It was unclear if LaHood was among them. In a text message, LaHood referred queries to an Republican Institute spokeswoman in Washington, who did not respond to requests for comment.
LaHood said last week that he had been told by his lawyer that he was under investigation on suspicion of managing an unregistered nongovernmental organization and receiving funds from an unregistered organization - namely, his salary.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said US officials had been in touch with Egyptian officials about the issue.
US officials have warned that restrictions on civil society groups could hinder aid to Egypt, funds the country badly needs given the severe blows continued unrest has dealt its economy over the last year.
The United States is due to give $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt in 2012.
Washington has given Egypt an average of $2 billion in economic and military aid a year since 1979, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Recent US legislation links the continuation of that aid to Egypt’s taking certain steps in its transition to democracy. 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 situation underlines the wider question of where the various groups struggling for power will lead Egypt. For months, the ruling military council has faced frequent protests over its handling of the transition and calling for it to immediately hand over power to civilians.
Military leaders have blamed unidentified foreigners for these demonstrations, saying they sought to destabilize Egypt.