The Pitfalls of Transitional Governments in Egypt

Nancy Okail had to flee her home country to avoid a five-year jail sentence for spreading democracy. Is the country now hurtling toward another period of instability?

On December 7, 2011, Nancy Okail, then the director of Freedom House's Egypt office in Cairo, was summoned to the Ministry of Justice for interrogation. Soon after she arrived, the prosecutor accused her of illegally receiving funding from a foreign government and interrogated her for seven hours. A few weeks later, a group of police officers stormed the Cairo offices of Freedom House, forcing the staff members into a conference room, taking their computer passwords and documents, and holding them incommunicado for hours.

nancy.jpgNancy Okail (Freedom House)

The same day, nine other civil society groups were raided, including other American NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the International Center for Journalists. Three days before the raid, Okail had submitted the newly required documents that would register Freedom House with the Egyptian government, which was then ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military body that temporarily took charge between the governments of Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi.

Apparently, Okail's registration documents hadn't been enough. In an effort to stifle civil society during the tumultuous transition time, the SCAF zeroed in on "foreign hands" and launched investigations into a broad swath of groups that received funding from abroad -- a category that included virtually every nonprofit group, Okail pointed out, since Egypt's weak economy couldn't support such organizations on its own.

The SCAF referred the cases of Okail and four of her colleagues to trial, along with more than a dozen other Americans working at other organizations, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The Democracy Report

In January, Okail began regularly appearing in court, where she was forced to sit in a cage in the courtroom while sensational accusations against her flew.

"As soon as I went in the cage, I realized it wasn't a fair trial: it was a warning for the public," Okail said. "The message was that if you're working for human rights and democracy, this is where you're going to end up."

As Egypt once again ousts its leader and reverts to a transition government, Okail says incidents like the NGO trials raise questions about the volatility of having temporary actors in charge.

At the time of the investigation, Freedom House's local country office had been working on supporting local civil society, educating voters, and monitoring elections. Okail is an Egyptian who had previously worked at the country's Ministry of International Cooperation in the early 2000s before getting her PhD in the United Kingdom. Almost immediately after she arrived to lead the Egyptian Freedom House office in 2011, she began receiving nightly threatening phone calls. When an article about Freedom House would appear in local papers, the reaction was harsh, with some commentators saying, "We should burn their offices!"-- and worse.

Okail believes the army wanted to preserve the privileges it had amassed in this interim period, such as a lavish budget and unchallenged authority to silence their detractors.

"Some of the things [our organization] looked at -- violations of human rights -- those were not the things they wanted to allow if they wanted to maintain their power," she said.

Throughout the trial, Okail's former boss, Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, would issue statements admonishing civil society organizations for working toward democracy or human rights.

"She was a witness in court against us, she wrote pages and pages of testimony," Okail said. "The question is, what are the other institutions behind her that supported this move?"

Straining under the pressure, Okail got divorced. In November, her mother had a stroke. Toward the end of her trial, Okail traveled to the U.S. to visit Freedom House's home office. While she was in Washington last month, the court sentenced the 43 NGO workers to up to five years in jail, even though the country was more than a year into the leadership of its first democratic government under Morsi. Okail and one of her American co-workers were sentenced to five years in abstentia. Another Freedom House employee received two years of jail "with hard labor." ( The Americans all fled to avoid jail time).

Okail can't go back to Egypt. The only way to challenge her sentence is to go to jail and request a retrial from behind bars -- a risk she's not willing to take. Her preschool-aged twins are in Egypt, but they can visit her from time to time. Her parents aren't able to travel, and she doesn't know when or if she'll ever see them again.

"Being here alone, with no family, it is very difficult," Okail said. "Knowing that I can never see my country again ... you get the sense of the injustice."

She said she worries that the country once again might be falling into a chaotic period in which human rights may be overlooked.

"We need a real period of transition to put together a constitution that represents all Egyptians and to put in place elections without military intervention," she said.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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