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Egypt Blocks Departure of US NGO Workers

Egyptian authorities are preventing some U.S. citizens from leaving due to an investigation of work civil society groups conducted regarding recent elections, Dec. 2011 (file photo).

Egyptian authorities are preventing several U.S. citizens from leaving the country because of ongoing investigations into the work of civil society groups supporting the country's legislative elections.

State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says U.S. officials are “very actively involved” with their Egyptian counterparts to lift the travel ban.

"We have several U.S. citizens working at various international, nongovernmental organizations in Egypt that have been questioned by judges in Egypt, and they are currently not being allowed to depart Egypt in connection with the government's investigation of NGOs," said Nuland.

Nuland says “four or five” Americans who are being prevented from leaving Egypt have contacted the U.S. embassy in Cairo, but that privacy rights prevent her from identifying them by name.

One of those caught up in the travel ban is Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood directs the Egyptian program of the Washington-based civil society group International Republican Institute.

He and his staff, along with members of the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, were questioned repeatedly by Egyptian authorities after they shut down their local offices last month, accusing the three U.S. groups of using foreign funds to support popular unrest.

Nuland says that after being prevented from boarding their flights, all of the Americans were allowed to keep their passports and that none were detained.

"We are urging the government of Egypt to lift these restrictions immediately and allow folks to come home as soon as possible," she said. "And we're hopeful this issue will be resolved in nearest days."

Treatment of international and domestic NGOs in Egypt has been a major point of disagreement between Egypt's new leaders and the Obama administration. Washington has called repeatedly for the return of computer equipment and documents seized from NGO offices during police raids.

As Egypt marks the one-year anniversary of its popular democratic uprising, Nuland said there have been positive steps and areas of concern. Successful parliamentary elections and the lifting of most emergency laws have been encouraging, she said.

"This is a relatively new thing for Egyptian bureaucrats and for the Egyptian judicial system," she said, explaining that Egyptian officials have been slow to adjust to all of the elements that surround democratic voting. "We have not had open elections of this kind in Egypt, so we've got new NGOs on the Egyptian side. We've got NGOs on the international side wanting to do what we do in countries around the world, which is to support the process, not to support any individual candidate."

Nuland says the Obama administration will continue to promote freedoms for civil society groups to support the electoral process, and that the administration is working with Egyptian authorities to improve bureaucratic procedures for properly registering those groups.