Washington Post Talks to Director of Freedom House’s Egypt Office on Eve of Trial
CAIRO — Nancy Okail, 34, expects to stand in a prosecution cage in a Cairo courtroom on Sunday. She doesn’t know if she’ll be taken from there to a jail cell, or if she’ll return home to her 2-year-old twins. But she does know that she does not want to run.
Okail, an Egyptian citizen and director of the U.S.-based Freedom House, is caught in a diplomatic battle between the United States and Egypt. The Egyptian government has accused three U.S.-based organizations, along with two other foreign NGOs, of working illegally in Egypt, failing to pay taxes and sowing unrest in the country.
U.S. officials have tried to get the case to go away. They have accused the Egyptian government of oppressing civil society, and U.S. lawmakers have threatened to cut off the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt’s military.
The Egyptian government has responded by pushing ahead with the prosecution, setting a court date of Sunday and putting seven Americans working for either the International Republican Institute or the National Democratic Institute on a no-fly list. Egyptian state media have depicted the case as a battle for national sovereignty against Western bullies.
At least 16 Americans have been named in the case, and among those being prevented from leaving Egypt is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood, director of IRI in Egypt, has taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy. It is unclear whether he and the other Americans will appear in court Sunday. Defendants who fail to show up for the trial could face the maximum sentence, or five years.
But to Okail this is not a battle about U.S. foreign aid or about Americans who are being held in Egypt against their will. For Okail, it’s about a struggle to promote democracy and human rights in a country that deposed its longtime autocratic leader just a year ago, and remains deeply conflicted about where to go next.
“This whole thing is not about saving Americans,” Okail said. “This is about Egypt’s relations with the world and the future of civil society.”
Okail returned to Egypt in August of last year to run Freedom House’s operations in Egypt and open an office. But since her return she has been harassed, her organization has been investigated and she is not optimistic that the charges against her will simply go away.
The Egyptian government has undertaken a successful public relations campaign to criminalize the work of NGOs in the minds of many Egyptians. The effort included a full-page story in the state-run newspaper in October accusing Freedom House of being a Zionist entity, code here for an Israeli agent.
In the government’s investigative documents, witnesses from the security forces accuse Freedom House and other NGOs that promote democracy of working in “coordination with the CIA.” The documents also say that the United States encouraged Freedom House and others to violate the law and that Freedom House “aims to control Egyptian society.”
Both the U.S. government and Freedom House have denied those allegations. Still, they are widely believed.
The NGOs “got foreign funds to pay for thugs to ignite riots and chaos here,” said Manal Salama, a Cairo resident who expressed a view that has become common here. “We have to close them all. The Americans are against us.”
Around the time that the article ran in the state press, Okail said she started receiving harassing phone calls. Sometimes they came at 1 a.m. or 5 a.m. The calls went to her own phone, as well as to her husband’s and to her sister’s. The caller breathed and hummed into the line, but never spoke.
Okail had left a cozy life with her husband and twins in Britain to return to Egypt and work at Freedom House. She said she wasn’t initially concerned when she received a summons from the Ministry of Justice in late November. But when she showed up on Dec. 7, the judge began proceedings against her, and she was interrogated for seven hours. She was later threatened with jail time if she spoke publicly about what had happened.
“In London I was Dr. Okail. Here I am ‘the accused Nancy Okail,’ ” she said.
While Okail had initially stayed quiet about the case against her, she has decided to speak out. With Freedom House’s offices raided and shut on Dec. 29, she has taken to working out of a bookstore in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, sipping coffee as she taps at her iPad.
The case against her, she said, sends the message that “it’s bad to work on human rights or democracy building and if you have an opportunity to go back and help your country, you will be indicted.”
Ironically, Okail once worked for the woman now leading the charge against the foreign NGOs. In 2003, as a young graduate of the American University in Cairo, she worked for the Ministry of International Cooperation, led by Faiza Abou el Naga. Naga, one of the few Mubarak-era holdovers in the new government, has used her perch to push for the prosecutions. She has declined repeated requests to be interviewed.
Okail said that the other young, educated Egyptians who worked with her at the ministry have since left the country. She was the only one to return.
“These are shining stars for Egypt. But will they return now?” she asked.
She said she hopes by staying, and by speaking out, she will signal that blaming outsiders no longer works in Egypt. “It’s only the start of this battle,” she said.