WASHINGTON - Building tensions between the United States and Egypt flashed into the open yesterday when it was made public that Cairo has barred at least a half-dozen Americans from leaving the country and the White House has threatened to withhold its annual aid to the Egyptian military.
The travel ban came to light after the International Republican Institute, a US-backed democracy-building group, disclosed that the Egyptian authorities had stopped its Egypt director, Sam LaHood, at the Cairo airport Saturday before he could board a flight to Dubai.
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, that Egypt has blocked from leaving as part of a politically charged criminal investigation into their activities.
Just a day before LaHood was detained, President Obama had warned Egypt’s leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, that this year’s US military aid hinged on satisfying new congressional legislation requiring that Egypt’s military government take tangible steps toward democracy, according to three people briefed on the conversation.
Obama referred specifically to the criminal inquiry into several foreign-funded democracy-building groups, including the Republican Institute, the people who were briefed said. He made clear that Egypt had not fulfilled the congressional requirements, but Tantawi did not seem to believe him.
Then, after the travel ban on the Americans became public yesterday, 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 yesterday.
Raids last month on nongovernmental organizations, along with respect for basic rights, are “very much a part of that package,’’ he said, saying repeatedly that the military aid was now at stake and that the treatment of the US-backed groups had sparked 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 US military aid to Egypt was at risk. That aid, $1.3 billion a year, has always been sacrosanct as the price the US pays to preserve Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Though members of Congress have talked this year of imposing conditions on aid to Egypt, the Obama administration had previously opposed the idea.
A tug of war between Washington and Cairo over US aid for Egyptian human rights and democracy-building groups goes back to the era of the former president, Hosni Mubarak. To maintain control over organizations that might pose any potential challenges to his government, Mubarak required all nonprofits 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 US 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 nonprofits. Then, in December, investigators accompanied by squads of heavily armed riot police raided as many as seven rights groups, including four backed by US government funds.
That ignited a firestorm of criticism from US 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 US 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.