The pressure to detain democracy workers in Egypt was the work of remnants from former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but the calls for Americans’ heads by protesters outside the courthouse in Cairo show the country has a long way to go before achieving true democracy, said one of those Americans formerly trapped there.
John Tomaszewski, the deputy program director for the International Republican Institute in Egypt, said that while the mission of groups like the IRI and other nongovernmental organizations is to promote democracy, Egyptian demonstrators wanted to swap one of the most notorious terrorists in U.S. federal custody in exchange for lifting a travel ban imposed on the Americans.
“There’s this longstanding demonstration camp, but the day of the trial this group of individuals had demonstrated outside of the courtroom — essentially saying ridiculous things like ‘trade the Americans for the blind sheik.’ And then hang the Egyptians who were accused, and this is how we’ll deal with this problem,” he told Fox News exclusively
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman — an Egyptian cleric more commonly known as the blind sheikh — was convicted in 1995 for supporting terrorism against the United States, including the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 that killed six people.
Tomaszewski is now back in the United States after the lifting of the ban imposed by the government, which accused Tomaszewski and his colleagues of being unregistered NGOs and using foreign funding to provoke unrest. In total, 43 NGO workers — Americans, Egyptians and other citizens — from several organizations were prosecuted.
Tomaszewski and several of his colleagues were forced to seek refuge in the U.S. embassy in Cairo as diplomatic negotiations for their release played out.
The Delran, N.J., native, who has worked for IRI in the Sudan and Egypt, said six American workers camped out in the U.S. embassy auditorium in sleeping bags. Among them was Sam LaHood who runs the IRI Egypt program and is the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
“We were preparing” for a long haul, he said. “We thought it might take months to get out.”
Tomaszewski was allowed to leave last week after Egyptian authorities removed the travel ban on the Americans after a nearly $5 million bail was paid. Those who left are required to go back to Egypt because the charges have not been dismissed.
Tomaszewski said IRI’s lawyers are considering the next step for them.
“Our darkest day was the day of the trial, seeing our colleagues behind bars, in a cage, while media and individuals shouted at them and called them traitors to their country,” he recalled. “That was a really dark day for us because we felt very close to them. We felt like a family and to see our family members, our IRI family members, our colleagues who worked alongside us on this really important project of democracy promotion, really hurt us inside.”
Despite the Arab Spring that washed away the Mubarak era, several influential individuals remain, and he said they created the legal case against them.
“They don’t have a lot of hard evidence, and they know it,” Tomaszewski said in his first media interview since leaving Egypt. “It’s based on evidence that’s trumped up by politicians and remnants of the old Mubarak regime, and that’s what we’re facing right now.”
Along with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, who traveled to Egypt to gain their freedom, Tomlaszewski singled out U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson for her efforts to broker a resolution and keep the Americans safe.
“Ambassador Patterson made this offer for us to be her guests in the embassy. A discussion took place between my organization’s leadership and her and others within the U.S. government and a decision was made for us to go there and we complied.”
While of the American NGOs are out of Cairo, Tomaszewski told Fox News that at least one worker remains, though not at the embassy.
“There is an American left in Egypt. I don’t know much about his situation, though,” he said, adding that the group also still fears for the safety of their Egyptian colleagues who were not able to leave the country.
“I think the most important thing for people to understand that this is not over,” he said. “When the Americans leave Egypt, it’s not over. These institutions — IRI, NDI (the National Democratic Institute), Freedom House — they’re still there, they want to stay there, they want to continue to go through the process. They want to be registered.
“Staff from these organizations are still going to go before a court, to be ridiculed and tried for doing work that our organizations were doing to promote democracy,” he said.