Egypt risks fallout with US over new NGO travel ban

Members of the Egyptian army keep protestors from reaching Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising. The country's military rulers have prevented pro-democracy advocates from leaving Egypt. Photo by: ellozy / CC BY-NC-ND

Egypt’s military rulers may have just picked their most explosive diplomacy fight yet: As part of their controversial clampdown on NGOs, the government has prevented pro-democracy advocates, including the son a U.S. cabinet member, from leaving the country.

Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, was stopped at the airport in Cairo on Saturday (Jan. 21). LaHood heads the Cairo office of the International Republic Institute, a U.S.-funded pro-democracy group. Three other IRI workers and six employees of the National Democratic Institute were served similar travel bans.

On Thursday (Jan. 26), State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the United States is working closely with the Egyptian government on this issue.

“We are urging the government of Egypt to lift these restrictions immediately and allow these folks to come home as soon as possible,” Nuland said.

U.S. lawmakers signaled as recently as this week their desire to reduce military aid to Egypt — some $1.3 billion annually — and instead increase assistance for the country’s civil society. This latest incident will likely increase pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to tie its aid more closely to democratic reforms in Egypt.

The Obama administration has already hinted at plans to up civilian aid to the African country. Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week that the administration is considering redirecting some nonmilitary aid from other countries to Egypt.

Saturday’s incident is not the first time the Egyptian government has gone after IRI and NDI, which are loosely affiliated with the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties. The two groups’ offices in Cairo were among several raided by Egyptian security forces in December.

Egyptian authorities have defended these and other raids as part of investigations into allegations that these foreign-funded groups are operating without licenses. Donors and various nongovernmental organizations, however, protested the raids as counterproductive, inconsistent and unacceptable to the ongoing democratization process.

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.