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Sam LaHood: Transition in Egypt Is Uneven, ‘Way Forward Is Not Clear’

March 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sam LaHood, Egypt resident country director for the International Republican Institute, was one of 16 Americans charged in Egypt and temporarily barred from leaving for observing elections. Ray Suarez spoke with LaHood about what happened.

RAY SUAREZ: And Sam LaHood joins me now.

What were you and the Republican Institute doing in Egypt? And until the raid, did you have any idea you were making the government so mad by doing it?

SAM LAHOOD, International Republican Institute: Well, we have had a program in Egypt since 2005.

And the International Republican Institute, despite our name, with Republican in it, we are not a partisan institution. And our sister organization, the National Democratic Institute, as well, we don’t seek to pick winners and losers in the places we work. We don’t have an ideological agenda in the places we work.

And what we try and do is advance democracy. And we do that in a couple different ways, by working with political parties and working with civil society groups, and particularly in a place like Egypt, where you have all these new political parties that were formed after the fall of Mubarak and you had a whole slew of new candidates running for office who had never been officeholders before, had never campaigned for office before.

And what we try and do is be an added value in the sense that we were trying to impart international best practices. And so we would bring in political consultants or people who have experience working in parties or campaigns to help impart what are best practices.

And, again, we’re not trying to pick winners and losers. We’re just trying to help support the democratic process.

RAY SUAREZ: But had the government, changing as it is in these troubled times in Egypt, signaled to you that they wanted you to back off or not do certain things while you were in Egypt?

SAM LAHOOD: Well, in the time that I was there — I was there for about a year-and-a-half. I was there before Mubarak stepped down. I was there after Mubarak stepped down.

And I had a half-a-dozen meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And we had applied for registration in 2006. And our registration is still pending. We’re told that our registration file is complete and they’re still waiting to make the final determination on that registration.

But the only thing I have ever gotten in writing and the institute has ever gotten in writing in my time there was authorization to be international election witnesses, which we brought in folks to be witnesses for the parliamentary elections.

RAY SUAREZ: When the government lashed out at the NGOs working in Egypt, was there a point where you realized, uh-oh, they’re not just mad at me, I can’t leave?

SAM LAHOOD: Well, for us, it certainly was when I actually tried to leave the country to go on a personal trip to visit a friend in a neighboring country and was turned back at the airport.

And prior to that, I had no idea that there was a travel restriction placed on us. We knew there was an investigation going on about our activities and a whole bunch of other non-governmental organizations in Egypt, but that was when we realized and our lawyers believed that the investigation had taken on a much more serious tone and step and believed that we were going to go to trial.

RAY SUAREZ: Were you worried that you could be jailed, as many Egyptians are while they await trial?

SAM LAHOOD: That was certainly a real concern.

Our attorneys told us that was unlikely. We were experienced a de facto detention. The judge had told us we can’t leave the country. And so we were, in essence, detained within the country of Egypt. Now, there was certainly concern, though, that we could be arrested, though, absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’re supposed to return in April. Are you going to go back?

SAM LAHOOD: We’re consulting with our attorneys right now about what options we have and what the best course forward is. And so we’re going to make those determinations as we get a little closer.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you worried about IRI’s Egyptian staff that really doesn’t have the choice and mobility that you do?

SAM LAHOOD: Sure. Sure.

I mean, the reality is that we have four employees who are Egyptian nationals who remain in Egypt. They’re going to remain on trial. And this issue isn’t resolved. Our departure or the travel ban being lifted doesn’t solve the problem for the United States government. It doesn’t solve it for the International Republican institute.

And we’re hopeful that we’re going to find a solution that is equitable for all of our employees.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this have a chilling effect on efforts to monitor the evolution of democracy in Egypt?

SAM LAHOOD: Well, from my standpoint, I think the transition in Egypt over the last year has been uneven.

I think there are some things that were very, very positive. I think the elections were positive in a large sense, that you had high voter turnout, that parties were able to form up, which was impossible under the Mubarak government. There were dozens of new political parties that formed. They had an active political competition that went on.

And people were able to get on the ballot. If somebody wanted to run for office, they were able to do that, which was impossible before. And so that’s a real positive development for Egypt. On the other hand, you look at the raids that — and the investigation that is going on with the International Republican Institute, and there’s investigations reportedly going on with 300 organizations within Egypt, and so I think you see a mixed picture of the transition that is going on.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you still anxious to return to the field after your experience?

SAM LAHOOD: I think so.

I have been talking it over with my wife about what we might do next. And so we got married in September, and we never got a honeymoon. So I told her we’re going to have a honeymoon and we’re going to take a little time and figure out what’s next.

RAY SUAREZ: And are you worried about what happens next in Egypt?

SAM LAHOOD: Very much so.

Certainly, for our colleagues and the people who were partners of ours and people who were elected, the way forward with Egypt is not clear at this point. And from IRI’s standpoint, you know, having worked in dozens of countries around the world that have gone through transitions like this, it takes time. And it’s not always — it is oftentimes a bumpy road, and it’s not clear.

And so I’m very, very concerned about our Egyptian colleagues, concerned about the work that we set out to do and hope to continue to do in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: Sam LaHood, welcome home. Thanks for joining us.