Moving the Americans into the neighborhood-size diplomatic compound in the center of the capital appeared to mark a dramatic worsening in Washington’s relationship with Cairo, which has been strained over the past year as the country’s ruling generals have sought to portray foreigners as agents of instability.
A senior State Department official said Sunday afternoon that a “handful of U.S. citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while awaiting permission to depart Egypt.”
The official, who was not allowed to discuss the matter on the record, would not say whether LaHood was among those at the embassy, citing privacy rules. The official did not elaborate on the threat that prompted the embassy to open its doors to some of those targeted in an Egyptian investigation into the work of the organizations.
“They weren’t in immediate physical danger, that we are aware of,” the official added.
Raid on NGO offices
Egyptian authorities last month raided the offices of several U.S.-funded organizations, including IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. The groups train Egyptian politicians and political parties and promote accountability and transparency in governance.
A former IRI official who has followed the case closely said Sunday that his former colleagues had indicated they would take shelter at the embassy only as a last resort, if they had reason to believe their arrest might be imminent. The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is no longer a representative of the group.
Egyptian authorities have been examining the practices of dozens of Egyptian and foreign civil society organizations that receive foreign funding, saying they are operating without permission from the government. Such organizations have for years operated openly, but unofficially, because the government has not allowed them to register as NGOs.
LaHood said in an e-mail Sunday afternoon that he was still barred from leaving the country.
“Nothing has budged in our legal case,” he wrote. “Office still sealed, still on travel ban.”
He did not respond to an e-mail sent hours later inquiring about those who sought protection at the embassy, and his cellphone seemed to have been switched off.
IRI officials in Washington could not be reached for comment. Kathy Gest, a spokeswoman for the National Democratic Institute, said the organization’s staff in Cairo had not relocated.