Americans on trial: a convenient distraction for Egypt's rulers?

The trial of 16 Americans and 27 other democracy workers opened today in Egypt in a case that has riveted the Egyptian public and deflected their frustrations onto foreigners.

By , Correspondent

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    Egyptian activists who accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo, Sunday. An Egyptian court adjourned the trial of dozens of democracy activists including 16 Americans on Sunday at the opening session of a case that has threatened ties between Cairo and Washington and $1.3 billion in annual US military aid.
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In a case that has become an international drama, the trial of 16 Americans and 27 other democracy workers opened today in a rowdy courtroom in Egypt.

The workers are charged with operating nongovernmental organizations without a license and receiving foreign funding illegally. US lawmakers call the case a politically motivated crackdown on rights and democracy groups in Egypt and have threatened to cut off US aid to Egypt – about $1.5 billion annually – if it continues.

But to much of the Egyptian public, it is a sensational case of foreign governments using these organizations to destabilize and control Egypt. State media has whipped up such nationalist sentiments, distracting some Egyptians from the slow pace of the regime's democratic reforms and directing anger outward.

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"These foreign agents are working to destroy Egypt," says mechanic and taxi driver Abdel Rahman. "They are the cause of all the negative events of the last year – America is using its money to weaken Egypt. If the court does not convict them, we Egyptians will find them and kill them."

Though 16 Americans are charged, only seven are in Egypt and none of them appeared in court today. All seven are banned from leaving Egypt, and some of them have taken refuge in the US embassy.

The 13 Egyptians who showed up to the chaotic hearing were held in a cage during the proceedings, as is customary in Egypt. All denied the charges against them, and were released without bail until the next hearing in April. Also absent from the proceedings were the Germans, Jordanians, Serbs, and Palestinians who are also charged.

Seeking 'espionage' sentences

Lawyers who volunteered against the civil society workers demanded they be sentenced to jail for "espionage," saying they had worked with the CIA, and demanded the accused pay punitive damages for the harm they had supposedly caused Egypt. 

Four of the five organizations involved are American. Two of them, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), are loosely associated with the US political parties and have strong allies in Congress. They ran training for political parties in Egypt and observed elections.

Both IRI and NDI applied for registration with the Egyptian government before the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak. The registration was a requirement under a Mubarak-era law intended to restrict the activities of civil society organizations working for human rights and democracy.

The groups' applications were never approved, but neither were they denied, leaving them in legal limbo. But they had worked in Egypt for years, and officials from both organizations say they were in contact with the authorities about their activities, and were transparent. Both groups were certified by a government entity to monitor parliamentary elections.

Though Egypt always opposed direct US funding to these groups because Egyptian officials preferred to control the money themselves, the US drastically increased funding for the groups after a popular revolt overthrew Mubarak, gambling that Egypt's temporary military leaders would welcome assistance in Egypt's transition to democracy.

More hostile than Mubarak

Instead, they were even more hostile than Mubarak. State media launched a smear campaign against the groups last year. A Mubarak-era minister seen by US officials as the driving force behind the prosecutions initiated an investigation of the groups that led to raids on their offices in December, during which security forces confiscated equipment, documents, and cash.

In a press conference this month, the investigating judges laid out evidence in the case that seemed aimed at portraying the accused as foreign spies who threatened Egypt's national security.

State media has vigorously embraced such rhetoric, splashing across the front pages stories about the workers cooperating with foreign intelligence agencies, collecting sensitive information, and working to harm Egypt. And many Egyptians, who have been fed a steady diet of xenophobic conspiracy theories by officials and state media over the last year, accepted the accusations. Egyptian officials have repeatedly blamed mysterious "foreign hands" for the unrest and violence that has prevailed since the revolution. Now, in the view of some Egyptians, the government has finally found the culprits. 

"You can't understate what is said in the media," says Nancy Okail, the country director for Freedom House who is one of those charged and appeared in court today. She says the media, along with Egyptian officials, have stigmatized and defamed the work of civil society. “Neither the prosecutors, nor any minister who makes a statement about the case, talk about this case as a procedural violation of the regulations in Egypt.... They talk about a foreign plot. They talk about Freedom House working with a foreign agenda and trying to divide the country and things like that. So there is an inconsistency in their story."

Freedom House ran programs in Egypt promoting civic engagement and voter awareness through its Washington office until Ms. Okail arrived to establish an office in Egypt in August. The group submitted registration paperwork, as required, and has not yet directed any programs from Egypt. Okail, an Egyptian citizen who left a job in England to direct the office in Cairo, says she doesn't blame the public for believing the story propagated by state media when state media is where many Egyptians get their information.

Egyptians are already somewhat suspicious of the US, which supported Mubarak's authoritarian state for three decades, and they resent what they perceive to be outside interference in their transition to democracy. 

A convenient excuse?

Even Interior Ministry officials standing trial with Mubarak for killing protesters during the uprising in January and February last year cashed in on the case, using it in their defense last week. They said the case is evidence of foreign plots to disrupt Egypt and the foreigners were responsible for the violence during the uprising.

Analysts disagree over whether Egypt’s military rulers wanted the case to go this far or not. It works in the rulers’ favor by provoking nationalist sentiment that distracts from domestic issues and strengthens support for the military rulers. But it also threatens their ties with Egypt's biggest donor, the US. Either way, public pressure now ensures the trial will go on.

"Now every one of [the military council] is taking very much care not to interfere in things which can put him facing a storm," says Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired major general and a military analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He says he talks regularly with members of the military council ruling Egypt, who say they cannot risk appearing to intervene.

Were defacto leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to end the trial, he says,"tomorrow in the newspaper there will be tens or hundreds writing against him" saying he is kowtowing to the US, says Said.

Many expect the trial will end in a face-saving move for Egypt – perhaps with a conviction, but no jail time. The fact that the ministry of foreign affairs asked NDI and IRI to resubmit their registration applications has led some to speculate that the government may choose to register the organizations as a way to help resolve the problem.

For now, the trial plays out on national television. The session Sunday was hectic, as reporters, supporters, and family members crowded into a tiny courtroom. After the judge ended the hearing, supporters of the defendants broke into deafening shouts of “down with military rule!”

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