Skip to content Skip to navigation

Draper Hills fellow fights for Egyptian democracy

August 27, 2012
Image credit: Al Tahrir

Every summer since 2005, a highly select group of international leaders travels to Stanford to participate in the Draper Hills Summer Fellowship on Democracy and Development at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.  These individuals come from a variety of professional backgrounds that include law, politics, government, private enterprise, civil society, and international development. They have the common goal of promoting democracy, development, and the rule of law in their respective home countries (click here to see the Draper Hills Summer Fellows of 2012).

Getting accepted to this highly competitive program is a great achievement.   This summer 25 fellows were accepted from a pool of 460 applicants, yielding an acceptance rate of 5.4%. The fellows come to Stanford, they learn, and then they return home, but what happens afterwards?  I had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Nancy Okail, Director of the Egypt office of Freedom House, a Washington D.C. based NGO and member of the inaugural class of the Draper Hills Summer Fellowship Program.  She was detained earlier this year in Egypt by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) during a crackdown on independent civil society organizations that work to promote democracy in Egypt.

Q. Tell us a bit about what you were doing prior to attending the Draper Hills Summer Fellowship Program?

NO: I have always been disturbed by extreme injustice and inequality in Egypt. Since I graduated from the American University in Cairo, I have tried different routes to make Egypt a better place. I began my career in organizations including the World Bank and UNDP working on poverty eradication, social justice and education reform. Realizing that any developmental reforms will fall short of having real impact in the absence of a democratic environment, I started to focus on democratic development. I worked with Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim at the Ibn Khadun Center, a pro-democracy organization, where my colleagues and I faced constant harassment by state security.  I even spent some time working at the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation in a naïveeffort to reform the government from within. But after two years under the leadership of Minister Fayza Abul Naga (who now is leading the campaign against Egyptian civil society organizations), it became clear to me that individual attempts for change in the face of the dictatorship and corruption of the Mubarak regime were futile.

Q. How did the fellowship experience influence or shape your attitudes/convictions? What did you learn?

NOIn 2005, I joined the very first batch of the Draper Hills Summer Fellows. This was the most fruitful opportunity I had in many years, and its benefit extended well beyond the time I spent at Stanford. I was able to interact with expert activists, policy makers and advisors from around the world. I also learned about the various challenges each of us faces and came to understand the common circumstances of life under dictatorships-- it was extremely enriching. The alliance we forged during the fellowship was a strongly connected network for support and the exchange of knowledge.

I experienced this the most profoundly after my indictment in the much-publicized case on the crackdown against NGO’s in Egypt. Learning through the different speakers and the leadership of Professors Larry Diamond, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss and Michael McFaul has added immensely to my knowledge. More importantly, however, is that their support extended well beyond the fellowship. Since the beginning of the trial in Egypt, they have been extremely supportive, especially Michael McFaul who did not spare any effort in extending support and showing concern regarding the developments in Egypt.

Q. What was your most memorable experience during the fellowship?

NOI think it was the combination of everything, expert knowledge from democratic countries and common experiences of activists who struggle to live under dictatorships. It was a two-way channel of learning and our mentors listened to our views and valued them greatly. The way the fellowship was designed allowed the fellows to have free time for social interaction and I believe that this was the element that helped us connect and maintain our relationship together until this day.

Q. What did you do afterwards and what do you think you did differently?

NOI moved directly to the UK to start my PhD on power relations of foreign aid, at the University of Sussex. I was glad to have had the opportunity to conduct research doctoral research where I could analyze the power dynamics of aid and make a deliberate attempt to change the way aid is managed, or better put, 'manipulated,’ by Army Generals. I finished my PhD in 2009 when the regime was still closed. My thesis was put under restricted access in order to avoid any harassment by the regime because of the corruption issues I disclosed.

The biggest lesson I learned, which has benefited me greatly, occurred when I took my post later as Director of Egypt programs for Freedom House.  I learned the importance of rule of law and how moving away from a culture of impunity from the law is the first and most important step in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Q. You returned to Egypt from the UK? Did you think your life would be in danger?

NOI was not naive enough to think that Egypt would become a democratic country just because one figure of the regime (Mubarak) was toppled. However, never in my wildest dreams did I think that my contribution to promoting democracy in my country would make me a criminal. I went from being called from Dr. Okail to Defendant Number 34 and spending endless hours locked in cage.

Q. What can you tell us about your detention and trial?  How did you make it to Washington D.C.?

NOThe trial experience was the most excruciating moment in my life and contrary to what many people think I was never banned from travel. I am Egyptian but I also am a UK resident so I could have left anytime. I was stubborn enough to stand my ground and insist on standing trial to fight for my right to prove my innocence, but very soon I realized that there was no indication that this trial would be conducted under the impartial rules of law. It was a highly politically motivated trial to punish those who stood up for democracy and human rights and it was obviously catered for public consumption to distract attention from the actual problems that Egyptians face. I am conducting work in DC but I returned to Egypt for trial on June 5th.  As has been the case for the past eight months the trial has been postponed again until September.

Q. What do you think the future holds for Egypt when state controlled media and SCAF are silencing pro-democracy NGO’s?

NOLimiting any type of freedom, be it freedom of expression or religion or association, are the most serious obstacles in path toward democracy. Without free media that discloses corrupt practices, and without a vibrant civil society that is powerful enough to hold rulers accountable, any successful transformation to democracy will be short lived.

Follow news of Dr. Okail and her upcoming trial in Egypt on Twitter at @NancyGEO, on Facebook at or by email at