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Egypt's Moves Leave Democracy Advocate Bewildered

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Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, spent four weeks holed up at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, sleeping on an air mattress part of the time and trying to fathom why the Egyptians wanted to prosecute him and his pro-democracy colleagues.

Eventually, LaHood's organization and others with employees facing prosecution paid more than $300,000 a person in bail to get them off the Egyptian travel ban, and the U.S. government flew most of them home.

Now LaHood is back in Washington, borrowing office space and thinking about his next steps. But the legal proceedings in Cairo haven't ended — a panel of judges on Thursday will begin to hear charges against LaHood and other foreign-funded democracy promoters. The Americans, among 43 democracy workers facing charges of fomenting unrest, are not expected to return to Egypt.

The episode is raising serious questions about how Egypt will approach calls for democracy and democratic institutions in the country.

'Just About Anything Was Possible'

LaHood had been running programs on voter education in Egypt and teaching new political parties how to run campaigns and develop their platforms. He says he and his colleagues at the International Republican Institute never expected to be prosecuted for their work.

But by the end, he was worried about his safety because of what he says were wild allegations in the Egyptian media against international democracy promoters.

"If someone had told me in December that it was possible that Egyptian authorities would raid our office, I would have said that's ludicrous," Lahood says. "And if someone had told me that Egyptian authorities would put a travel restriction onto people to not be able to leave the country, I would have said that was ludicrous.

"So, that those things happened I took as a sign that just about anything was possible, whether that was arrest or just facing trouble with people with their own ax to grind," he says.

LaHood was one of six Americans taken out of Egypt on a U.S. plane after posting bail; the seventh American stayed.

Need For Grass-Roots Groups

Still, the issue is far from resolved, says Tamara Wittes, who recently left the State Department to join the Brookings Institution. She says key issues are at stake.

"One is whether U.S. assistance to Egypt all has to go through a centralized point in the Egyptian government or whether the U.S. can use its assistance to build independent relationships with others in Egyptian society," she says.

"The second big issue is about civil society and associational freedom and what approach is post-revolutionary Egypt going to take to its own NGOs," she says, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

For more than three decades, the U.S. has provided Egypt with over $1 billion annually in assistance. Much of the aid goes to the military, but considerable sums also go for civilian projects.

Wittes says the U.S. and others need to keep reminding Egyptian authorities that if they want the country to be a democracy, they need nongovernmental groups that hold authorities to account.

"The idea that community-based grass-roots organizations inside Egypt should be able to reach out to and partner with counterparts in other countries, this should not be controversial. This is a core component of freedom of association, well rooted in international law," she says.

Bellwether For The Region

A group of U.S. lawmakers recently came back from Egypt saying they had received assurances from a leading Islamist party in the new Egyptian Parliament that they would help resolve these issues.

LaHood says the Muslim Brotherhood is interested in getting rid of laws put in place by Hosni Mubarak, who was president for nearly three decades before his ouster a year ago.

"The Muslim Brotherhood knows better than anybody else the nasty tactics that the Mubarak government had used in the past," LaHood says. "There is within the Muslim Brotherhood — and within a lot of these other groups that are newly elected to Parliament — interest in reforming these laws to making them more open."

Egyptians are working through what Wittes of the Brookings Institution describes as a heavy legacy of authoritarianism, and she says what happens in Egypt is important for the region.

"It's culturally, economically, historically a dominant influence on the rest of the Arab world," she says. "So the path Egypt takes is going to have a significant influence on the trajectory in the rest of the region."

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