Why Were Six Americans Barred from Leaving Egypt?

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Amr Nabil / AP

Egyptians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square set up an obelisk on Jan. 25, 2012, with the names of people who were killed in last year’s uprising to mark the first anniversary of the revolution

Egypt has banned at least six Americans, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, from leaving the country. It’s the latest in a series of embarrassing blows dealt to the Obama Administration, which is also Egypt’s largest benefactor in military aid (at roughly $1.3 billion a year). Last month security forces operating under Egypt’s military-led government raided the offices of 17 nongovernmental organizations, including the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House, confiscating computers and cash and threatening NGO workers with arrest. On Thursday, officials said that Sam LaHood, who heads IRI, and at least five others had been added to a “no-fly list,” even as Michael Posner, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, visited Egypt and met with officials. LaHood and his wife had tried to leave Egypt on Saturday but were stopped at the airport.

Human-rights and pro-democracy organizations were among the ex-regime’s favorite targets of censorship and harassment, and activists have accused the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of using similar tactics in the year since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. A near character assassination of the April 6th Youth Movement by Egyptian state media in recent months has stirred hateful rhetoric against the democracy activists in many of Cairo’s lower-class neighborhoods. Many Egyptians were angered by the U.S. government’s close relationship with Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, as well as its perceived silence while Mubarak wielded repressive and often brutal tactics against his citizenry. State media has helped to stoke a rising tide of xenophobia and suspicion, particularly toward Americans, since Mubarak’s ouster.

Local press reported on Thursday that the military’s attaché in Washington denied the military’s responsibility for the NGO raids, saying the investigation was led and initiated by judicial and police authorities. One of Egypt’s highest-ranking judicial authorities suggests that’s nonsense and hinted that the whole episode smacks of a political agenda. “The NGOs and human-rights and freedom organizations are being targeted because they revealed a lot of crimes and flawed interactions that have been carried out in the transitional phase, and their voices keep getting louder and louder,” says Hesham Genene, head of the Cairo Appeals Court. “I want to ask them: How come now the NGOs don’t have their license and registration? How were they able to function before without them?” he adds, noting that many of the organizations raided have been operating in Egypt for years.

But what the country’s military rulers are aiming for is hard to pinpoint. It’s possible they’re hoping for leverage over the aid, which Congress recently passed legislation on, linking it to pro-democratic reforms. It’s a condition that Mubarak’s government lobbied against, and the ruling generals—at one time appointed by Mubarak—are unlikely to be any different. But the amplified pressure on NGOs could be a gamble. The move may well anger members of Congress more than it sways them to the military’s side.

Many Egyptians are hoping the U.S. will take a tougher stance on SCAF than it did with Mubarak. “American policy was mistaken in trying to earn the goodwill of the regimes rather than the people,” Genene says. That has fueled mistrust and created a “barricade” between Egyptians and the U.S. government. But the U.S. has an opportunity to be better allies to a post-Mubarak Egypt, he says. “There hasn’t been much change yet,” he says. “But the hope is there.”

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