Egypt bars Americans from leaving: What's going on here?

Egypt's military rulers escalated a dispute over US-funded NGOs by barring some American employees from leaving the country, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

By , Staff writer

The junta that runs Egypt has banned a group of Americans and Europeans working on democracy promotion from leaving the country, among them the son of Ray LaHood, President Obama's Transportation secretary.

Sam LaHood, the director of the International Republican Institute's (IRI) Cairo office, told the Associated Press that he was turned away at the airport last Saturday as he sought to fly out of the country. It has since emerged that a number of other employees of foreign NGOs have been barred from departing, stemming from the December raids by Egypt's ruling military on their offices, among them those of the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

(Though both NDI and IRI are considered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the vast majority of their funding comes from the US government's National Endowment for Democracy.)

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The raids on groups that had been operating openly in Egypt for years, albeit without official licenses and occasionally subject to state harassment, appeared to be a warning from Egypt's military rulers, known as the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), against pushing for too much change too fast.

It's hard to imagine the US, which has given Egypt roughly $2 billion per year in aid since the country signed its peace accord with Israel in 1979, turning its back on Egypt. But if Egypt's ruling generals were looking for a way to push the Obama administration in that direction, targeting the son of a cabinet secretary and others would be a very good way to go about it.

Real fear of foreign conspiracies?

What is going on here? Though the xenophobia of Egypt's rulers is often treated as a pose, going after these US government-funded groups makes it almost seem as if they believe their own propaganda. Perhaps they have in fact convinced themselves that all opposition to military trials for civilians, or demands that their frequently unchecked power be removed, stem from foreign agitation, and that all "real" Egyptians are behind them.

On the other hand, the targeted NGOs are groups with reasonably long track records in Egypt, and well known to the state bureaucracy. The military could have forced them to close up shop without an investigation and the threat of criminal charges, and Washington would have grumbled. But the travel bans have pushed the issue front and center and will require stern US diplomatic engagement. It's hard to imagine that the head of SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and his fellow officers wouldn't have anticipated this – or what they think they gain.

Why Egypt raided NGO offices

Egypt alleged that the groups were illegally funding local political groups, and seized computers, documents, and cash in the armed raid. But preventing their executives from traveling – presumably because criminal charges may be brought against them – is a major escalation.

Both IRI and NDI have run into trouble with Egypt's rulers in the past, but problems were eventually smoothed over. The work of both organizations is hardly radical, with a focus on teaching NGOs how to craft messages and manage budgets, and political parties the importance of polling and using focus groups. After Egypt briefly shut down both groups a few years ago, they found new ways to operate by working with the state. NDI, for instance, kept state security informed of all their programs in advance.

Now, SCAF is escalating tensions at a time when Egypt needs international funds more than ever.

Official statistics showed tourism dropped by 30 percent last year, and some officials privately say the decline was greater. Wealthy Egyptians have moved cash offshore, in a climate where criminal proceedings are ongoing against many close to the old regime, and many more are afraid that they will eventually be targeted.

Foreign investment, with plenty of domestic upheaval, has likewise dried up. Egypt's foreign reserves halved last year, and are now down to about $18 billion, a perilously small number for a country with 80 million people, the majority of whom rely on government fuel and bread subsidies.

A state too big to fail

As a practical matter, assuming the charges are eventually dropped, it's unlikely the US will turn its back on the military, or Egypt more generally. The country is in many ways too big to fail in the eyes of the US, with its peace deal with Israel and the emerging political power of the Muslim Brotherhood. After years of the State Department giving Egypt's most popular opposition movement the cold shoulder, US Ambassador Anne Patterson has been reaching out to them in recent weeks. Perhaps that's what the military is banking on.

Egypt's finances practically dictate that the country will be going cap in hand abroad for cash in the near future. The US would usually be a first port of call, as would the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where Washington has considerable sway. All of this would argue that cooler heads will prevail. But the message from SCAF to Washington today feels like, "You need us more than we care about you."

Perhaps it's a posture to remind America not to oppose the military's interests as Egypt turns towards presidential elections and rewriting a constitution in a way that many activists hope will clips the military's wings.

But in an election year, with Obama's rivals looking for ways to show the president is easily pushed around abroad, this could become a bigger issue. This week, at least, SCAF is playing a dangerous game.

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