Sam LaHood was the director for the International Republican Institute in Egypt from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a program officer with the organization.
In Egypt last month, three journalists were found guilty of doing their jobs and given seven- and 10-year jail terms. Apparently, little has changed. A little more than a year earlier, I and 42 other employees of international human rights groups were similarly convicted at a Cairo trial that the U.S. and European governments have condemned as politically motivated. I was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor after being found guilty in absentia of a trumped-up felony.
In my case, appointees held over from the regime of Hosni Mubarak used repressive laws to target our groups for providing democracy assistance, manipulating the bureaucratic machinery for their own ends. Many more of these officials, who constitute Egypt’s entrenched security apparatus and bureaucracy, or “deep state,” have since returned to power after being out in the cold during the truncated presidential term of Mohamed Morsi. This deep state, led by individuals at the Ministry of Interior, state security and other large bureaucratic entities, is intent on exerting control over civil society, politics and the media through intimidation and repression.
Watching the persecution of these journalists, I had a flashback to the armed raid on my Cairo office on Dec. 11, 2011. The same Egyptian justice playbook, in which the authorities use benign technicalities to bring a legal veneer to outrageous allegations, was on display.
In my case, the technicality was that my organization did not have a license, even though we had properly applied and worked with the Egyptian authorities on our registration and had been accredited as international observers for the 2011 parliamentary elections. For the three journalists — Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed — it was a lack of government-issued press credentials. In both instances, these technical charges were accompanied by a smear campaign in Egypt’s yellow press intended to stir suspicion and tarnish the reputations of the organizations and individuals accused. In addition, the charges were directed only at the individuals, not their organizations, leaving them more isolated in combating the relentless attacks.
I was smeared in public by the ludicrous accusations that I was advancing Israeli interests, seeking to break up Egypt and working against the aims of the Egyptian revolution. In an equally absurd parallel, the Al Jazeera journalists were accused of being terrorists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood and of having written false stories. These accusations would have been comical if they didn’t have such serious consequences.
A year later, the full implications of my conviction are still emerging. Under Egyptian law, I am a felon. It is unclear whether that status applies in the United States, so I need to read the fine print when I fill out an application for a loan, rental agreement, visa or job. I am still waiting for the Virginia Department of Elections to tell me whether I am eligible to vote. In Virginia, convicted felons can vote only once they have completed their sentence.
Many professions are closed to criminals. One needs to have a clean legal record to practice law or to be a stock broker, real estate agent, teacher or insurance salesman. I know I can’t travel to Egypt and probably a dozen nearby countries that have close ties with Cairo. Canada and a number of European countries have said they do not recognize the verdict and have condemned it, but others have been less clear. If I were to travel to Africa or Asia, how confident could I be that I wouldn’t run into some sort of legal trouble and be extradited to Egypt?
My hardship, though, pales in comparison with that of others.
Before I was put on trial in Egypt, I was fortunate to be offered temporary residence in the U.S. Embassy with the other accused Americans. I slept on an air mattress for a couple of weeks in an auditorium on the embassy grounds. I never faced the full humiliation of standing in a cage in an Egyptian courtroom, as is customary for defendants, nor did I spend even one day in an overcrowded Egyptian cell. Some of my Egyptian colleagues who live overseas and were convicted along with me cannot return home without facing jail time. They are refugees. Others have lost personal relationships and work opportunities. All of us have had the course of our careers and lives altered.
Watching the trial of the Al Jazeera journalists, it was clear that the current Egyptian government is intent on using the same strategy the old one employed against me and my colleagues. Since the 2011 revolution, Egypt has faced no tangible negative repercussions for trying and convicting human rights workers, journalists and political leaders. So why should it change course?