CAIRO - The U.S. Embassy in Cairo took the unusual step Sunday of sheltering U.S. citizens employed by nongovernmental organizations amid fears that they could be detained as part of a crackdown on pro-democracy groups, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials and a former NGO official.
The move comes a week after Sam LaHood, the director of the International Republican Institute, was barred from boarding an international flight in Cairo. LaHood is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Several other NGO workers later learned that they had also been barred from leaving the country.
Moving the Americans into the neighborhood-size diplomatic compound in the center of the capital appeared to mark a dramatic worsening in Washington's relationship with Cairo, which has been strained over the past year as the country's ruling generals have sought to portray foreigners as agents of instability.
A senior State Department official said Sunday afternoon that a handful of U.S. citizens have opted to stay in the embassy compound in Cairo while awaiting permission to depart Egypt.
LaHood said in an email Sunday afternoon that he was still barred from leaving the country. "Nothing has budged in our legal case," he wrote. "Office still sealed, still on travel ban."
The developments came as Egyptians cast ballots on the first day of the election for the upper house of parliament. In contrast to the first day of voting for the lower house in November, when people voted in record numbers, polling stations were largely empty Sunday.
Voters and those who abstained from the polls Sunday cited a sense of weariness about the complex, staggered election process that is expected to conclude next month.
Islamist parties won more than 70 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament, which was seated last week. The upper house is a consultative body that can weigh in on constitutional issues but otherwise has little authority.