Several foreign civil rights workers in Egypt, including six Americans, are not being allowed to leave the country while officials decide whether to charge them for their work with democracy activists.
The workers, who include Sam LaHood, director of International Republican Institute's Egypt program and son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, work for democracy organizations that provide training on setting up political parties, civil rights groups and elections.
Egyptian police raided the offices of 10 foreign civil rights organizations last month, including three U.S. organizations: LaHood's IRI; the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Police seized computers, files and cash. Judges then called workers in for questioning.
"It's bad enough a month ago there was a raid on our headquarters in the country, and then they had people brought in for questioning and now there's this no fly list," says Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute. "Now imagine Americans being arrested and being put in a cage in a Cairo courtroom."
President Obama raised their plight with Egypt's military leader, Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, last week, and Congress has made $1.7 billion in aid to the country contingent on continuing democracy reforms.
This was the first time any IRI offices have been raided or workers were barred from travel in any of the dozens of countries where the group operates, including China and Russia, Craner said. Training it provides in Egypt has been offered to thousands of Egyptians from across the political spectrum, he said.
LaHood was the first to learn he was barred from travel when he tried to leave Egypt on Saturday and an official took his passport and disappeared for an hour, Craner said. She "came back and said 'You're not flying today,'" and he was escorted out of the airport, Craner said.
Craner said Egyptian authorities have accused the organizations of operating without a license, though he says IRI applied for one when it started operating there in 2006, but the license was never provided.
"We were never told we can't do this kind of work and were encouraged informally including under (ousted President Hosni) Mubarak to continue," Craner said.
The raids may be an attempt by the country's military junta to show Egyptians "they are totally independent and not a puppet regime" of the United States, said Khairi Abaza a former official of the liberal Egyptian Wafd Party.
The cases, even if they result in acquittals, "will act as a deterrent" for civil society in Egypt, Abaza says. Egyptian Cynthia Farahat of the Center for Security Policy says the attack on democracy groups is part of the military government's decades-long campaign against liberalism in Egypt.
Although events by all three American organizations that were raided have been open to Egyptians of all political persuasions, "when they speak about values of human rights, equality and freedom of speech and expression, most of the people interested in these kinds of events were the classic liberals," Farahat says. "These organizations have been our allies inside Egypt and (the military leaders) don't want us to organize."