Facing five years in an Egyptian prison is enough to make anyone lose his cool. Add a high-profile last name and the barrage of Washington media that follows it, and no one could fault you for making a frantic phone call or dropping an obscenity or two.
But that’s not Sam LaHood’s style. The son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is one of 43 people currently banned from leaving Egypt while authorities investigate the alleged use of foreign funds to influence domestic politics. The government has targeted LaHood for his work as country director for the International Republican Institute, an organization that trains locals to conduct fair and democratic elections.
His supervisor, Scott Mastic, has stayed in close contact with LaHood and said he is a “calming force” among the 19 American and 24 international employees referred to trial by Egyptian authorities on Sunday.
“Sam is an incredibly laid-back, unassuming guy who has a capacity to deal with adversity and navigate through challenges that you rarely come across among people,” Mastic said.
LaHood’s demeanor won Mastic over long before he realized the challenging position he was assigning for his Egypt office director. LaHood came to Mastic’s office for an interview in August 2010 and told him that he was ready to get back overseas. LaHood had experience working with the State Department in Iraq during the transition from Saddam Hussein’s rule, but he had since returned stateside to work on public relations for several international development projects.
LaHood, then 36, made it clear that he wanted to leave the comforts of Washington and get his hands dirty, Mastic said.
The director of IRI, Lorne Craner, told LaHood to use caution in Egypt and keep a low profile. Under the Mubarak regime, the organization was not allowed to conduct business within Egyptian borders. LaHood’s office had to train pro-democracy Egyptians in third-country offices.
But everything changed in January 2011. Five months into LaHood’s stay in Egypt, the protests in Tahrir Square began and eventually forced President Hosni Mubarak from power. LaHood received direction from IRI to seek shelter and to cease business until the environment was more secure. At one point the authorities cut off all Internet and mobile phone grids, and IRI’s headquarters did not know when its Egypt office would emerge from the blackout. LaHood, however, found a landline and called Mastic sounding calm and patient.
Keeping cool is important for more than LaHood’s own sanity. Locals supporting organizations such as IRI are especially sensitive to a flaky leader who might abandon them. Should the investigations of LaHood and his staff proceed, Egyptians working for him may be looking at harsher punishment than their American counterparts, so they need to know that their leader supports them.
LaHood proved that support to his Egyptian employees when authorities raided their Cairo office on Dec. 29. He did not resist but made sure that all staffers were able to safely leave the facility.
“When the police came, Sam was instrumental to our ability to react in a professional way,” Mastic said.
LaHood was leading IRI’s American employees out of the country when he discovered their names were on a no-fly list. Of course, his name stood out on the list for reasons that go beyond his leadership with the organization. His father’s status as a Cabinet member in the Obama administration has raised Sam LaHood’s profile far above leaders of other nongovernment organizations facing the same charges. The Transportation Department is deferring all questions on Ray LaHood’s reaction, but Mastic has had contact with both men.
“His father, like any father, is concerned about the well-being of his son in these circumstances,” Mastic said.
According to IRI, Egypt is harassing its workers at unprecedented levels for the first time in the organization’s more than 30 years of work in 100 countries. The charges and the no-fly list came despite American threats to cut off aid to Egypt in retaliation.
Although the White House has not announced a plan for getting LaHood and the other American NGO workers back home, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday, “We’ve made clear that we take this very seriously.”
Sam LaHood’s patience is likely to be tried over the coming days and weeks as the dispute with Egyptian authorities plays out.
“This thing is so helter-skelter in the way that it is being conducted.” Mastic said.
This article appears in the February 7, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.