19 Americans detained by Egyptian government

February 14th, 2012

Late last year, Egyptian authorities raided offices of multiple pro-democracy groups, including two groups associated with the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S., seizing documents, computers, cell phones and cash, and shutting down the organizations pending a criminal investigation. At the time, the unprecedented raid dealt a major blow to U.S.-Egyptian relations.

In early February, the relationship between the two countries hit a new low as Egypt issued a travel ban on workers from the pro-democracy groups and moved to file criminal charges against 19 American citizens and two dozen other employees involved with these non-governmental organizations. 

Out of the 19 Americans, only six still remain in Cairo including Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and Egypt’s director for the International Republican Institute, one of the organizations in question.

According to The New York Times, charges brought against the NGOs include “operating without licenses, conducting research to send to the United States and supporting Egyptian candidates and parties to serve foreign interests.” The State Department and the Obama administration have been troubled by the charges, especially after an Egyptian delegation scheduled to meet with lawmakers in Washington last week unexpectedly cancelled their trip.

“We are deeply concerned by these reports and are seeking clarification from the government of Egypt,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

Since the resignation of Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak, U.S.-Egyptian relations have been steadily declining.

Mubarak was arguably one of the most important allies to the United States in the region because he kept the peace with Israel, cracked down on Muslim extremists, and negotiated peace talks in the Middle East.

As a result, the United States provided Egypt with almost $2 billion in annual military and economical aid. Since the assault on the pro-democracy groups, Washington has threatened to cut of the annual aid package which could cripple Egypt’s struggling economy. “The harassment of Americans who are in Egypt trying to help build their democracy is unacceptable,” said Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), chairwoman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

In response, Egypt has shown no signs of backing down. “Those groups are unregistered and from the view of the judiciary they were breaking the laws of Egypt. This is a total judicial issue. We cannot exercise influence on the judges,” said Mohammed Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister.

The International Republican Institute asserted in a statement that the prosecution of its employees is politically charged.

In order to help resolve the issue, The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, travelled to meet Egypt’s military rulers. This past weekend, Dempsey met with Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and his counter part, Lt. General Sami Enan. The U.S Department of Defense website asserted that the generals discussed issues such as the NGO problem and future military cooperation.

Dempsey told The American Forces Press Service during the flight back that the United States wants to stay engaged with Egypt, “not to influence or shape, but simply be there as a partner to help them understand their new responsibilities.”

“I think they are eager to have that kind of partnership with us,” he added, “but we have to get beyond this NGO issue.”

Experts have asserted that the crackdown on these groups is an attempt to reinforce the Egyptian generals claims that protests against their rule are stirred up by foreigners.