A week ago, he was hiding out in the U.S. embassy in Cairo, fearing a court sentence that could land him in an Egyptian jail. This week, the International Republican Institute’s Sam LaHood is meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have been high-fiving people in the corridors to celebrate his and other civil-society workers’ freedom.
The son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had spent weeks in Egypt fending off arrest on charges of operating illegally and stirring unrest. He and other pro-democracy workers monitoring the first parliamentary elections after Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s ouster were prevented from leaving the country.
The detention of LaHood and other activists frustrated Washington’s relations with the Egyptian government and even put at risk billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
By LaHood’s account, it was a dramatic exit. “Mentally, I wasn’t going to believe it until it actually happened,” he told National Journal between meetings with lawmakers. “When the embassy told us to pack up and go to the airport, that the travel restrictions had officially been lifted, and our attorney confirmed that–we were ecstatic.”
“We were nervous for our colleagues and nervous [we wouldn’t] actually get out,” LaHood said. Local staff still face trial in Egypt. “We were on cloud nine when we actually got on the plane. It was literally a 1940s [Douglas] DC-3. And the crew was playing the Indiana Jones theme song on the plane.”
LaHood, a country director for the International Republican Institute, was thanking key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Wednesday for their support. He had already spoken with Senate Armed Services ranking member and IRI Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., both of whom visited Egypt when LaHood was staying at the embassy.
Seen high-fiving aides and members of the press, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was in good spirits after meeting with LaHood, the other freed nongovernmental organization workers, and the presidents of the IRI and the National Democratic Institute. Still, Ros-Lehtinen argued that Egypt does not yet deserve to receive U.S. aid.
The United States should not give money to nations that are acting the “opposite of what we think free and democratic countries should be,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “At the bare minimum … don’t hold our American citizens hostages. I just think that sends the wrong message. If we go back home and tell our constituencies: ‘Now [give] a billion dollars to Egypt because they let our people go’– people [will] say, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
This isn’t just tough talk. The virtually sacrosanct package of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt remains at risk for the first time in decades. Congress passed new rules on fiscal 2012 military aid requiring the Obama administration to certify that Egypt is supporting the transition to democratic government and implementing policies to protect due process of law and freedom of expression, association, and religion
House Foreign Affairs ranking member Howard Berman, D-Calif., wants to reserve his final opinion on whether the administration should provide aid. The Camp David Accords are vital to the stability of the region, Berman noted, and the U.S. relationship with the Egyptian military runs deep. “One good step has been taken,” he said. “They released the Americans.” Even so, Egypt retains the money and documents it seized from the NGOs and hasn’t granted them permission to operate in the country. Plus, the criminal charges are still technically pending.
Even if the Americans’ case is resolved, the U.S. groups are only a few among some 300 human-rights and civil-society organizations under investigation in Egypt. “There is a larger issue [at stake],” Berman told National Journal. “Is there a role for civil society in the new Egypt? The Egyptian government, the [military council], the parliament are going to have to come to grips with that.”
“A society that does not allow NGOs to function and operate and leaves them in fear of prosecution or worse is missing a fundamental component of democracy, which is an independent, strong civil society,” Berman continued. “So what happens with these NGOs, beyond NDI and IRI, I think, should factor into our decision.”
LaHood, who got married in September, never had a honeymoon because of the prolonged Egyptian elections—and his ensuing detention. “I’m looking forward to reconnecting with family and hopefully having a honeymoon soon,” he said.