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