IRI was one of three U.S.-based nonprofit groups in Cairo that were raided and shut down on Dec. 29 by Egyptian authorities, who accused the groups of using foreign funds to support unrest in Egypt.
After an outcry in Washington and in European capitals, the ruling generals appeared to retreat, promising President Obama and other top officials that the computers and other property confiscated from the three U.S.-based groups and at least four other nongovernmental organizations would be returned and their offices reopened.
But the offices remain closed, the equipment is still gone, and in an apparent escalation, a travel ban has been imposed on foreigners being investigated by the Egyptian government.
As many as 40 foreigners are now on a travel ban list as a result of the Egyptian investigation, said Scott Mastic, IRI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It’s absolutely an escalation,” Mastic said of the bans, which were first reported by Politico on Wednesday evening. “To have a strategic U.S. ally issue bans against American citizens is deeply troubling.”
Employees of IRI, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and Freedom House have been called in several times for questioning focused on foreign funding and the legality of their presence in Egypt. IRI said it was told by Egyptian judicial officials that if the case goes to court, trials would begin next month. A judicial official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that time frame.
“The implication is that these persons will be put on a list because there is an attempt to move to formally charge them and put people on trial,” Mastic said. “We are absolutely worried for their well-being.”
U.S. officials say they have pressed Egypt on the issue repeatedly and forcefully in almost daily conversations between the U.S. Embassy and the Egyptian government. This weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the issue in a call with Egypt’s foreign minister. President Obama also brought up the rights of NGOs specifically in a phone call last week.
“They are asserting that these people are subject to the judicial process, and so is the equipment,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “Our point is that whatever the formalities are here, they need to be concluded as quickly as possible.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also issued a statement, calling Egypt’s actions “outrageous.”