This post has been updated. See the note below.
REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Americans under criminal investigation for democracy-rights work in Egypt have sought protection from possible arrest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo amid escalating tensions over civil liberties between Washington and Egypt’s military leaders.
The Americans took refuge at the embassy over the weekend after Egyptian authorities barred them from leaving the country during a probe into nongovernmental organizations the army has blamed for fomenting unrest and stoking political turmoil.
U.S. officials did not identify the Americans but at least six are under investigation. One of those forbidden from traveling is Sam LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute, or IRI, in Egypt and son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He and the others could face up to five years in jail.
Embassy officials would not comment on whether the Americans were staying at their compound in downtown Cairo, a development first reported Monday by the Washington Post.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Kate Starr confirmed that "a handful of U.S. citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while waiting for permission to depart Egypt,” the Associated Press reported.
The number of people who sought refuge was not immediately clear, though the Associated Press quoted one unnamed U.S. official as saying it was three. It wasn't clear whether Sam LaHood was one of them.
[Update 11:58 a.m. Jan. 30: A spokeswoman in Washington for the National Democratic Institute, the other American organization whose staffers were banned from leaving Egypt, said its three Americans under investigation had not sought refuge at the embassy. "Our staff has not been relocated," said Kathy Gest, public affairs director for the NDI.]
The younger LaHood could not be reached for comment. He told Fox News over the weekend that he was “expecting the worst.”
The diplomatic row comes as Washington has hinted at withholding $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt following pressure by the White House for the army to swiftly transfer power to a civilian government. Egyptian military officials are expected to meet this week with Obama administration officials in Washington to resolve deepening differences.
Egypt alleges that democracy-building nongovernmental organizations such as the IRI and the NDI have helped instigate protests and instability since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak nearly one year ago. The organizations have denied such characterizations, saying they have been working with Egyptians on free elections and developing a transparent democracy.
Some Egyptian activist groups, including the April 6th Movement, have been meeting with U.S.-based organizations since before last year's revolution. The army says the U.S. organizations, and those funded by other countries, are part of a “foreign hands” network violating Egypt's funding and licensing requirements. Those regulations were set up during the Mubarak era to ensure his political opponents did not receive outside money.
The IRI “does not provide monetary or material support to Egyptian political parties or civic groups,” according to a statement on its website. “IRI’s work with Egyptian civil society supports nonpartisan voter education and civic engagement with the goal of enhancing democratic participation and does not interfere with or influence the outcome of elections.”
The diplomatic clash has chafed nerves in Washington and Cairo. Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have been pressing the generals to cede authority over the nation, especially after a new parliament was seated this month. The army fears that loosening its grip could lead to further instability and to the prospect of a new constitution that would limit its power.
Three Washington lobbying firms, known as the PLM Group, announced last week they had ended their contracts with the Egyptian government because of the investigation of the U.S. organizations. The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, however, said it canceled the agreements as part of cost cutting.
Egypt has been one of the United States' closest allies in the region, keeping a domestically unpopular peace treaty with Israel and cooperating on military strategy and counter-terrorism. The upheaval over the last year has strained those dynamics as Islamists have taken control of parliament and the army has cracked down on civil liberties, including trying 12,000 civilians in military tribunals.
Egyptian media reported over the weekend that the military has sought advice from a panel of technocrats over stepping aside sooner than expected. The generals had said they would hand over power after a new constitution was passed and a new president was elected in June. A quicker transfer, however, would probably appease Washington and stem protests from activists groups.
A military newsletter, Armed Forces, released a 16-page edition Sunday extolling the army’s role in the revolution. Headlines included: “The 25 January Revolution is a revolution by a great people, protected by a chivalrous army” and “The armed forces are a main partner in the success of the revolution.”
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: A 1998 photo of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Cairo, where some Americans barred from leaving the country have sought refuge. Credit: Leila Gorchev / Associated Press