By Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott
Three Americans, including International Republican Institute Egypt Country Director Sam LaHood, are taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo because they voiced concerns about their personal safety, U.S. government officials say.
"They came in and said they felt threatened; they were afraid for their lives," one official said, adding that the U.S. government doesn't believe they actually are in danger but has concerns about the fate of the groups' Egyptian staff members.
"We are not aware of - that they're in any danger," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.
"We have - in our discussions with the SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - we've made clear our concerns about this issue and our disappointment that these several citizens are not being allowed to depart Egypt in connection with the government's investigation into (non-governmental organizations)," Carney said.U.S. officials say State Department criteria mandate that a citizen may take refuge in the Embassy only if they fear for their personal safety, not if they fear arrest.
"We do not believe they were in physical danger, but they had concerns, and they were invited by the embassy," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, explaining that the Americans had approached embassy staff.
"This was a unique situation," Nuland said, adding that there is "no question" those in the Embassy are not trying to avoid the legal process.
But LaHood, the son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, said last week that while he felt "safe physically," he was concerned that the investigation into the work of American non-governmental organizations has "taken on a more serious nature, and the next step from here would either be arrest or go to trial."
A source familiar with the circumstances of non-governmental organizations in Egypt confirms that a "handful" of staff members from the International Republican Institute are taking refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo. The source says the decision for them to go the Embassy was made because "there was concern that arrest and trial could be imminent."
Leslie Campbell, director of programs in the Middle East and North Africa for the National Democratic Institute, says that none of its staff members are at the U.S. Embassy. He says the organization "did not think it was necessary at this time."
Both the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute were created by and are partially funded by the State Department and USAID.
Campbell says that "it has gotten worse" and that more people from the National Democratic Institute have been called in for questioning by Egyptian authorities. That institute has been told that six of its staff members are on the "no-fly" list of foreigners who are not allowed to leave the country, but the institute "has not seen the list and has not tried to test it" and remove staff from the country.
Campbell says that there is no "legal process" under way in Egypt and that the government is not communicating with the non-governmental organizations directly.
"There is no warrant, no explanation, no documentation or charges," he said. Almost all of the information the groups are getting comes from Egyptian media reports. Recent articles in the media have indicated that the investigation is almost at an end and "that is the prelude to putting them on trial."
For example, an article in Monday's Al Shurouk newspaper, translated into English, was headlined, "Prosecution to Refer Foreign Funding Case to Criminal Court." It quoted an unidentified "judicial source" as saying, "The list of charges leveled against them include working without an official permit from the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, receiving foreign funds in violation of the law and spending such funds on activities that harmed the country."
The paper says that "among those hit by the travel ban ... are 13 Americans and eight Europeans, mostly Serbians."
The paper added that the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Justice dismissed claims that a deal has been struck with the United States under which the American officials of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute would be allowed to leave the country.
"The travel ban," the paper quoted the official as saying, "is a judicial decision made by an independent investigative body. Under no circumstances should Egyptian judicial rulings be swayed."
The fate of the Americans has been a topic of discussion between the U.S. government and the Egyptians. This weekend, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke with Egyptian Field Marshall Tantawi and, according to a Department of Defense statement, "the Secretary asked that Field Marshall Tantawi take steps to lift the travel ban on American citizens wishing to leave Egypt, and expressed concern over restrictions placed on NGOs operating in Egypt."
This week a delegation from Egypt is in Washington for meetings at the Pentagon and with members of Congress. The fate of the American NGO staff will be discussed during these meetings, Nuland said. Some members of Congress have been calling for a cessation of U.S. aid to Egypt.