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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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!”