Sam LaHood of the International Republican Institute spent weeks hiding in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, fearing trial in an Egyptian courtroom on charges of illegally operating democracy-promotion programs and stirring unrest in the country. LaHood, country director in Egypt for the U.S.-funded group, was finally allowed to leave the country on March 1, but the criminal charges against him and other American civil-society workers are still pending. Edited excerpts of National Journal’s interview with LaHood follow.
NJ What did you think when you discovered you were on a no-fly list?
LaHOOD It’s one of those things you read about: People not being allowed to leave, and given no reason. It’s a very surreal thing to have it happen personally. It was very unsettling that the investigation into our organization had reached a much more serious stage.
NJ Why did you take shelter at the embassy?
LaHOOD The travel restrictions shocked everybody—people in the U.S. government; certainly people in our organization. There was a real concern we were going to get arrested at some point. The embassy approached us initially and made the offer: If we felt uncomfortable, felt unsafe, they would make room for us.
NJ Did you feel targeted because your father, Ray LaHood, is Transportation secretary?
LaHOOD I think my father’s position certainly made this whole thing more salacious in the media, both in Egypt and in the United States. But the reality is, the case was targeting reportedly 300 organizations in Egypt, only a handful of which are foreign-based.
NJ Talk about the December raid on your group, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House that drew such an outcry in Washington.
LaHOOD It was definitely a raid. It was not an investigation. They didn’t knock and ask to come in; they came into our offices and told people to get away from their desks. It was people from the federal prosecutor’s office, backed by police and members of the military carrying machine guns. They were rifling through all our stuff. They didn’t ask to see documents; they took documents and cash and files. They closed our office in Cairo. We haven’t had access to it since. We haven’t had a slip of paper returned to us.
NJ What was your reaction when you heard that Egypt was lifting the travel ban?
LaHOOD When the embassy told us to pack up and go to the airport, we were ecstatic. We were nervous for our local colleagues and [worried that there might be] a problem at the airport. We were on cloud nine when we actually got on the plane. It was a 1940s DC-3, and the crew was playing the Indiana Jones theme song.
NJ What about the case against you?
LaHOOD There has been a lot of this malarkey spewed out by the minister of international cooperation—Fayza Abul Naga. She’s alleged that the U.S. government is actively trying to sow unrest, trying to divide Egypt, and undermine the revolution. For a minister of another country to allege those things in a court of law and in public seems outrageous, and she points to our organizations as tools that are doing that. But that’s unrelated to the actual legal charges that we face: managing an unregistered international organization and bringing in money to the country illegally.
NJ What do you say to the allegations?
LaHOOD We don’t pick winners. Our programs are not based on ideology. You have all these new parties, people who are running for office who don’t have experience. We’re trying to impart a little bit of best practices, and bring in people who are professional campaign consultants in Europe or the U.S. who have years of experience. In Egypt, by and large, you can’t find a person who has ever voted before, prior to the revolution. And they put together a very complicated voting system. We’re trying to do basic voter education on how to fill out a ballot properly, how to find a polling place—so that if people chose to vote, they know how.
NJ IRI wasn’t registered under former President Hosni Mubarak, either. Why is the interim government cracking down?
LaHOOD It’s really difficult to inject logic into this situation, because it’s hard to see who gains what. But there are certain elements of the Mubarak regime that may be trying to rebrand themselves within Egypt or save their positions.
NJ What happens if this case goes on for a long time?
LaHOOD We continue to get calls and e-mails from partners in Egypt asking when we can come back. But it’s very difficult for us to operate when we don’t have an office, when our employees face some sort of legal jeopardy. Egypt is a bellwether within the Arab world and a key U.S. ally. We’d like to be a constructive component of the transition that’s going on right now.
NJ For now, you’ll get some time off?
LaHOOD I got married in September, and because of the elections and everything going on, I never had a honeymoon. So I’m looking forward to reconnecting with family and, hopefully, having a honeymoon soon.
This article appears in the March 17, 2012, edition of National Journal.