By Eric Kulisch
Senate Budget Committee leaders expressed their concern during a hearing last week about the detention of Sam LaHood and 15 other young Americans by Egyptian authorities because of their work for non-governmental organizations dedicated to fostering and strengthening democratic institutions around the world.
The key witness was Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Sam's father, who was there to testify about the Obama administration's fiscal year 2013 transportation budget.
Late last month, authorities barred the young Americans from leaving the country after Egyptian government forces raided the offices of groups supported by Congress that were monitoring the recent parliamentary elections as Egypt transitions from a military dictatorship following last year's revolution. Egypt is ruled now by a transitional military council.
Authorities seized computers, files, cash and other assets.
Sam LaHood is the director of the International Republican Institute, an NGO that has ties to the GOP leadership in Congress. He was refused permission to board a plane when he tried to leave the country several days after the offices were shut down.
U.S. officials have used diplomacy to get the Egyptians to drop the investigation, but the disagreement only seems to be worsening.
Some senators have threatened to cut U.S. military aid to Egypt, which totals more than $1.3 billion per year. But administration officials are being careful not to act precipitously because Egypt is a key partner in maintaining regional stability, and grants the U.S. military overflight rights and priority passage in the Suez Canal. Cutting off aid would also send a signal that the United States has lost confidence in the democracy movement there, according to news accounts.
“The fact that Egypt has taken this action is beyond the pale. It is completely unacceptable. These young people are doing important work, work that is directly supported by the Congress of the United States to support constitutional governments, to support democracy. There could be no higher calling," Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D, said.
Conrad called the Egyptian charges of foreign interference in elections "farcical" and said he has contacted the Egyptian ambassador to express his anger over the situation, which also involves one of his constituents.
"We hope people are listening and they understand how seriously we take this," the senator said. "I hope we can send a clear message of what’s acceptable behavior and what is completely unacceptable. It is completely unacceptable to be detaining young people who are there to try and help the people of Egypt."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican member from Alabama, called the Egyptian action "deeply distressing." He said the United States wants Egypt to prosper under freedom, but that detaining Americans without justification is an affront to U.S. national interests.
On Saturday, Egypt's state news agency said the government has set a Feb. 26 date for a trial of LaHood and 24 others involved with pro-democracy groups, the Associated Press
Several defendants are from other countries.
Egyptian officials said the defendants have been charged with founding and managing offices of international organizations without licenses from the Egyptian government, with illegally receiving foreign funding and using tourist rather than work visas to avoid paying taxes. The charges could lead to five-year prison sentences.
A delegation of U.S. senators was in Cairo Monday on a previously scheduled trip and met with top Egyptian political and military leaders. The senators expressed optimism that the dispute will be resolved soon.
Middle East analysts say the Egyptian authorities blame foreign interference for contributing to ongoing unrest in the country and want to be seen as standing up to the United States.
The Egyptians say the case must go through the legal process, which puts the U.S. government in the difficult position of trying to get the government to interfere with the work of the judiciary when the United States is trying to push democracy, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a story published on CNN