The son of a U.S. Cabinetofficial and other Americans working for a democracy rights group have been stopped from leaving Cairo as part of a criminal investigation of foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations operating in Egypt.
The move is certain to intensify a diplomatic rift between Cairo and Washington over American aid to human rights and democracy groups that are viewed with suspicion by Egypt's military rulers. The U.S. government said it was outraged by recent police raids on the Egyptian offices of three American-backed organizations.
Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and several other members of the Washington-based International Republican Institute have been barred from leaving Egypt. The Egyptian government has suggested that such groups are trying to destabilize the politically charged country as it makes the transition to democracy after the February overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
The younger LaHood reportedly tried to fly out of Egypt last week. There were also reports that staffers of the National Democratic Institute, also based in Washington, have been barred from leaving the country.
"We have received verbal notification that six NDI staff, three of them Americans, have been served travel bans," NDI Egypt director Julie Hughes told Reuters.
Tension between the U.S. and Egypt's military leaders has sharpened in recent months. Washington, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid, has pressed Cairo to protect civil rights and for the army to hand over power to a civilian government. Egypt's new parliament met this week, but a president isn't scheduled to be elected until June.
Egypt views U.S. pressure, along with nongovernmental groups involved in democracy programs, as meddlesome. In December, Egyptian police raided 17 such organizations, including the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute.
President Obama last week called Egypt's top leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, to express concern about the mistreatment of nongovernmental groups. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called her Egyptian counterpart afterward.
Yet their warnings did not prevent the Egyptian government from taking steps bound to further infuriate the White House.
U.S. officials said they had reached out Thursday to senior Egyptian officials, but suggested that it may take days for the Americans receive permission to leave.
Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokeswoman, said the Obama administration urged Egypt to lift the orders "immediately and allow these people to come home." She said U.S. officials are "hopeful we can resolve this in the coming days."
The Americans have been blocked from leaving the airport, but they retain their passports and have not been arrested, Nuland said. The State Department has received "four or five" calls from Americans requesting help in leaving Egypt, she said.
The detentions brought expressions of concern from some members of Congress.
Sen. John McCain(R-Ariz.), who is chairman of the International Republican Institute, said he had viewed harassment of the group with "growing alarm and outrage."
"I deeply regret that this crisis has escalated to the point that it now endangers the lives of American citizens and could set back the long-standing partnership between the United States and Egypt," McCain said in a statement.
The travel bans and raids appear to be part of a strategy on the part of Egypt's generals to intimidate nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Military leaders have repeatedly blamed "foreign hands" for the nation's economic and political turmoil.
"The investigation into NGOs is being politically managed," said Emad Gad, an analyst with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The army has been talking about [outside] plots to destroy the country for months … and now the army has to come up with something to show their claims were not baseless."
Egypt claims the organizations are violating funding and licensing requirements. Mubarak's now-deposed government passed the regulations years ago to ensure that no agency opposed to the regime received money.
Fleishman reported from Cairo and Richter from Washington. Amro Hassan in The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.