Politico Talks to IRI’s Sam LaHood About Egypt’s Crackdown on NGOs

‘Ecstatic’ To Be Out of Egypt
By John Bresnahan

As they cleared Egyptian air space relieved and unharmed last Thursday, Sam LaHood and his colleagues were treated to an in-flight movie on the specially chartered DC-3 cargo plane whisking them out of the country — “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The iconic 1980s Indiana Jones adventure movie offered a humorous — yet poignant — moment for a handful of U.S. citizens who had become embroiled in a major diplomatic incident that reached the highest levels of the American and Egyptian governments.

The younger LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, was the most high-profile employee of several U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations targeted in a crackdown by Egyptian authorities. After a Dec. 29 raid on the offices of dozens of foreign NGOs, including the International Republican Institute, where Sam LaHood worked, Egyptian officials barred him and other NGO workers from leaving the country.

LaHood said he was “Ecstatic, ecstatic!” to leave Egypt after weeks of being prevented from doing so by Egyptian officials.

LaHood told POLITICO in an interview on Tuesday that he was placed under a “de facto detention” by the Egyptians and later sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. “It was sort of an arrest warrant, in reality,” LaHood said.

Following a period of frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations, LaHood and the other NGO workers were finally allowed to leave, avoiding for the moment a criminal trial over allegations that they tried to undermine the Egyptian government and foment unrest during recent parliamentary elections. U.S. officials shelled out $5 million-plus in bail money to spring LaHood and the other NGO workers.

“We were thrilled,” LaHood said of his departure from Egypt aboard the ancient cargo plane. “The flight crew was playing ‘Indiana Jones’ when we got on the plane, so it was kind of a funny scene. We were relieved to be leaving Egypt and heading home.”

“I think he was relieved that I was able to come home,” Sam LaHood said of his father, a longtime House GOP lawmaker who joined the Obama administration in 2009. Ray LaHood privately appealed to President Barack Obama and top Egyptian officials for help in winning his son’s release, although he was very cautious in his pubic comments on the crisis. “I think he told me to get a haircut.”

The younger LaHood does not believe he was targeted by the Egyptians because of his father’s prominent role in the U.S. political scene, but his involvement in the showdown helped raise the stakes — and media coverage — for the dispute. POLITICO first reported on Jan. 25 that he and the other NGO employees had been placed on a “no-fly” list. Forty-three of these NGO employees, including 19 Americans, later had criminal charges filed against them.

“I don’t,” LaHood said when asked whether he thought his father’s Cabinet post garnered extra Egyptian scrutiny. “I think my father’s position really was of interest to the media. But I don’t think there was a causal relationship there.”

LaHood went to Egypt in August 2010 to head up the IRI’s outreach program in that country. IRI and the National Democratic Institute, its sister organization, are among several U.S. government-funded NGOs active in Egypt. Both groups have strong ties to Capitol Hill lawmakers and prominent American officials, ties that played into the dispute as it unfolded during the past few months. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) talked of cutting off the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) actually forced a floor vote on the matter.

During his time in-country, LaHood witnessed the fall of longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the February 2011 revolution, and he was hopeful that Egypt — a key U.S. ally in the Mideast — would make a quick transition to a true democracy.

But the struggle to build democratic institutions in Egypt has been difficult and marked by continued street protests similar to those that toppled Mubarak.

The Egyptian military has continued to run the country through a Supreme Council chaired by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, although the extent of Tantawi’s real power is unclear. Throughout the NGO crisis, Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made direct appeals to Tantawi to release the Americans, yet Tantawi and other top Egyptian military leaders responded that they could not interfere with the judicial process.

The younger LaHood sees a “power vacuum” in Egypt that some officials took advantage of in order to promote their own political prospects.

Egyptian officials announced last summer that they would form a commission to look into NGO activity in that turbulent country. Mubarak’s fall resulted in Congress altering the U.S. aid formula to Egypt; $60 million in American funding that had gone to the Egyptian government was diverted to the NGOs, and U.S. lawmakers inserted provisions in last year’s funding bill saying that Egypt had to make clear progress in moving toward democracy.

The diversion of those U.S. funds angered Planning and International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abou el-Naga, a Mubarak regime holdover who has pushed the NGO investigation. Abou el-Naga claims U.S. officials are attempting to control Egypt through the NGOs.

By the fall, a report on the NGO activity had been referred to the Egyptian Ministry of Justice, but there was no sign of imminent action against the groups, according to Sam LaHood.

Then came the Dec. 29 raid against the NGOs, which LaHood said was “a total shock. No one expected the Egyptian government to take action like that.” LaHood and the other NGO workers were then interrogated by Egyptian officials, but it was still unclear whether they were going to be personally targeted.

Several weeks later, LaHood went to the airport to board a flight to Qatar. An Egyptian immigration official questioned LaHood about his plans and was then joined by another official who told him that he had been placed on a “no-fly” list and could not leave Egypt while he was still under criminal investigation.

“I didn’t know there was a travel restriction or know it was put in place,” LaHood said. “It was just my dumb luck that I was the first one on the list who tried to travel.”

At that point, LaHood grew “uneasy” about what would happen to him and his colleagues. “The reality is that every step along the way, they ramped the case up more and more. … It seemed to be getting more and more serious,” LaHood said.

Fearing possible arrest and detention in an Egyptian jail, LaHood and several other Americans moved into the U.S. Embassy. LaHood praised Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, who he sad “worked tirelessly” to resolve the showdown.

LaHood denied any violation of Egyptian law, although he declined to say during the interview whether he would return to Egypt for his trial. He and other IRI employees were scheduled to meet with their U.S. law firm on Tuesday, and LaHood said he would make his decision after discussing the case with his lawyers and family members.

Up ArrowTop