3:05am

Thu March 8, 2012
Middle East

Egypt's Moves Leave Democracy Advocate Bewildered

Originally published on Fri March 9, 2012 4:00 pm

Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, spent four weeks holed up at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, sleeping on an air mattress part of the time and trying to fathom why the Egyptians wanted to prosecute him and his pro-democracy colleagues.

Eventually, LaHood's organization and others with employees facing prosecution paid more than $300,000 a person in bail to get them off the Egyptian travel ban, and the U.S. government flew most of them home.

Now LaHood is back in Washington, borrowing office space and thinking about his next steps. But the legal proceedings in Cairo haven't ended — a panel of judges on Thursday will begin to hear charges against LaHood and other foreign-funded democracy promoters. The Americans, among 43 democracy workers facing charges of fomenting unrest, are not expected to return to Egypt.

The episode is raising serious questions about how Egypt will approach calls for democracy and democratic institutions in the country.

'Just About Anything Was Possible'

LaHood had been running programs on voter education in Egypt and teaching new political parties how to run campaigns and develop their platforms. He says he and his colleagues at the International Republican Institute never expected to be prosecuted for their work.

But by the end, he was worried about his safety because of what he says were wild allegations in the Egyptian media against international democracy promoters.

"If someone had told me in December that it was possible that Egyptian authorities would raid our office, I would have said that's ludicrous," Lahood says. "And if someone had told me that Egyptian authorities would put a travel restriction onto people to not be able to leave the country, I would have said that was ludicrous.

"So, that those things happened I took as a sign that just about anything was possible, whether that was arrest or just facing trouble with people with their own ax to grind," he says.

LaHood was one of six Americans taken out of Egypt on a U.S. plane after posting bail; the seventh American stayed.

Need For Grass-Roots Groups

Still, the issue is far from resolved, says Tamara Wittes, who recently left the State Department to join the Brookings Institution. She says key issues are at stake.

"One is whether U.S. assistance to Egypt all has to go through a centralized point in the Egyptian government or whether the U.S. can use its assistance to build independent relationships with others in Egyptian society," she says.

"The second big issue is about civil society and associational freedom and what approach is post-revolutionary Egypt going to take to its own NGOs," she says, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

For more than three decades, the U.S. has provided Egypt with over $1 billion annually in assistance. Much of the aid goes to the military, but considerable sums also go for civilian projects.

Wittes says the U.S. and others need to keep reminding Egyptian authorities that if they want the country to be a democracy, they need nongovernmental groups that hold authorities to account.

"The idea that community-based grass-roots organizations inside Egypt should be able to reach out to and partner with counterparts in other countries, this should not be controversial. This is a core component of freedom of association, well rooted in international law," she says.

Bellwether For The Region

A group of U.S. lawmakers recently came back from Egypt saying they had received assurances from a leading Islamist party in the new Egyptian Parliament that they would help resolve these issues.

LaHood says the Muslim Brotherhood is interested in getting rid of laws put in place by Hosni Mubarak, who was president for nearly three decades before his ouster a year ago.

"The Muslim Brotherhood knows better than anybody else the nasty tactics that the Mubarak government had used in the past," LaHood says. "There is within the Muslim Brotherhood — and within a lot of these other groups that are newly elected to Parliament — interest in reforming these laws to making them more open."

Egyptians are working through what Wittes of the Brookings Institution describes as a heavy legacy of authoritarianism, and she says what happens in Egypt is important for the region.

"It's culturally, economically, historically a dominant influence on the rest of the Arab world," she says. "So the path Egypt takes is going to have a significant influence on the trajectory in the rest of the region."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Egypt today, a court postponed proceedings of against pro democracy promoters. They're accused of receiving illegal funding and stoking unrest. Some of the defendants in the postponed case were Americans and not likely to appear anyway. The U.S. government posted their $5 million bail and flew six activists home last week.

NPR's Michele Kelemen spoke with one here in Washington.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The International Republican Institute's Sam LaHood spent four weeks holed up at the U.S. embassy in Cairo after he was put on a travel ban along with other international democracy promoters.

SAM LAHOOD: I spent two of those weeks literally sleeping on an air mattress in an auditorium, and then they found some sleeping quarters for me and another colleague and we spent the remainder of our time there in a more proper bedroom.

KELEMEN: LaHood, who is the son of the Obama administration's transportation secretary, is now back in Washington borrowing office space and thinking about next steps.

LAHOOD: My wife and I packed up all our things and sent them home. And so we - I don't have anything left there but it was a little bit of a hurried affair.

KELEMEN: He had been running programs on voter education in Egypt and teaching new political parties how to run campaigns and develop their programs. LaHood says he and his colleagues never expected to be prosecuted for work the U.S. government paid him to do. And by the end, he was worried about his safety because of what he says were wild allegations in the Egyptian media against international democracy promoters.

LAHOOD: That those things happened, I took as a sign that just about anything was possible, whether that was arrest or facing trouble with people just looking for their own axe to grind.

KELEMEN: LaHood was one of six Americans taken out of Egypt on a U.S. plane after posting bail. One other stayed in Egypt. Still the issue is far from resolved, says Tamara Wittes, who recently left the state department to join the Brookings Institution. She says key issues are at stake.

TAMARA WITTES: One is whether U.S. assistance to Egypt all has to go through a centralized point in the Egyptian government, or whether the U.S. can use its assistance to build independent relationships with others in Egyptian society. That's the first big issue. The second big issue is about civil society and associational freedom and what approach is post revolutionary Egypt going to take to its own NGOs.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and others need to keep reminding Egyptian authorities, she says, that if you want to be a democracy, you need non-governmental groups that hold authorities to account.

WITTES: The idea that community based grassroots organizations inside Egypt should be able to reach out to and partner with counterparts in other countries, this should not be controversial. This is a core component of freedom of association well-rooted in international law.

KELEMEN: Some U.S. lawmakers came back from Egypt, recently, saying they got assurances from a leading Islamist party in the new Egyptian parliament that they would help resolve these issues. Sam LaHood, of the International Republican Institute, says the Muslim Brotherhood is interested in getting rid of Hosni Mubarak-era laws.

LAHOOD: The Muslim Brotherhood knows better than anybody else, the nasty tactics that the Mubarak government had used in the past. And there is, within the Muslim Brotherhood and within a lot of these other groups that are newly elected to parliament, interest in reforming these laws to making them more open so that people are more free to express opinions and operate within Egypt outside of just the confines the Mubarak government put up.

KELEMEN: Egyptians are working through what Tamara Wittes describes as a heavy legacy of authoritarianism, and she says, what happens in Egypt is important for the region.

WITTES: It's culturally, economically, historically a dominant influence on the rest of the Arab world. So the path Egypt takes is going to have a significant influence on the trajectory in the rest of the region.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can follow developments in the Arab Spring, the 2012 election, and many other stories, right here on MORNING EDITION and also follow us online, on Twitter and on Facebook. Out Twitter handles include @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.

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