In Egypt, American NGO workers head to court in civil society trial

Two Americans and a German returned to Egypt to face trial with Egyptian colleagues and draw attention to an NGO case they say has major implications for Egypt's democratic transition.

By , Correspondent

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    In this December 2011 file photo, workers from the National Democratic Institute, a non-governmental organization, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian government is putting 43 civil society workers – including at least 16 Americans – with operating nongovernmental organizations without a license and receiving illegal foreign funding.
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When an Egyptian court held a hearing in the trial of 43 civil society workers today, two Americans joined 14 Egyptians and one German in the metal cage used for defendants in Egyptian courtrooms.

One had stayed behind when the US paid millions of dollars in bail to spirit six other Americans out of the country on a private jet. The other, an Egyptian-American, was in the US when the charges were announced, but returned to Egypt voluntarily Sunday to stand trial. Both have thrown a wrench into the US government’s plan to extricate itself from what had become the biggest crisis in US-Egypt relations in decades.

Both men, who could face up to six years in prison, said they came back because they think it is important to fight the charges, which they say are false and politically motivated,  in part because the outcome of the case could impact the future of civil society in Egypt. And both say they also felt a duty to stand with their Egyptian colleagues on trial, who don’t have the luxury of watching the drama play out from the safety of the US.

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“Of the four Egyptians charged from NDI, three of them worked for me. At every turn when I was pressured to leave, I couldn’t stomach it,” says Robert Becker, who worked for the National Democratic Institute, an organization loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party in the US that promotes democracy abroad. “You don’t walk away from your colleagues.”

He and Sherif Mansour – who resigned from his job at Freedom House in Washington, D.C., to face trial – are among 43 people charged with operating nongovernmental organizations without a license and receiving illegal foreign funding. Four of the five organizations involved are US-based organizations receiving American funding; at least 16 of the defendants are American. Those not present are tried in absentia. All deny the charges and call the case a politically motivated crackdown on rights and democracy groups.

NDI and the Republican-affiliated International Republican Institute (IRI) had been operating in Egypt for years, and had both applied for licenses under restrictive Mubarak-era laws intended to curtail the activities of civil society organizations. But US funding for pro-democracy organizations in Egypt has long been controversial with Egyptian authorities. They never granted or denied the registration requests, keeping the organizations in a legal gray area. The government was aware of the activities of both organizations, and had even accredited their employees to act as official election observers in parliamentary elections last fall. Freedom House applied last year for a license to set up a Cairo office.

When the case was brought early this year, tensions increased between the US and Egypt, as Egyptian state media accused the civil society workers of being spies and working to destabilize Egypt, and authorities slapped a travel ban on the foreigners connected to the case. All of the American IRI and NDI employees except Becker sought refuge in the US embassy to avoid possible arrest until the US paid millions of dollars in bail and whisked the Americans and other foreigners away in a private jet.

Becker refused to shelter in the embassy or to board the plane. He has since been laid off from NDI. The native of Washington, DC, is a veteran Democratic political campaign manager. He has managed successful congressional campaigns in the US, and also has worked abroad in places like Indonesia.

He came to Egypt in June 2011 to work with NDI, training political parties for the first free and fair elections in Egypt in half a century. All political parties now in Egypt’s parliament, including the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the ultraconservative Islamist Nour Party, participated in NDI’s training. Workshops included advice on how to run a campaign, how to conduct media relations, and how to manage constituent services once elected.

Becker worked closely with his Egyptian colleagues, and said he simply could not walk away and leave them to face the trial alone. Many of them are young, and will likely have difficulty finding new jobs after being associated with organizations that are now controversial. Some say they can’t even land an interview for a new job because of the trial. NDI is paying the Egyptian employees' salary and legal defense fees for all including Becker, throughout the trial. “If they ended up in jail and I was safe in the US, I wouldn't be able to live with that,” says Becker. He is prepared to face jail time if convicted, but says he has faith that the truth will win out.

He also sees the case as part of a broader crackdown on civil society in Egypt. If the case is lost, “the long-term impact is, citizens are afraid to organize at the community level,” he says. “If that's the case, then democracy won't work. If we go down, that’s when the floodgates could open and they all go down.”

Mr. Mansour agrees that the case has broader implications than just the futures of the 43 people charged. “This an extraordinary case and it needs an extraordinary fight. It needs to be fought to the end,” he said by phone before he flew back to Egypt. “I think it's going to have a lot of impact on the role of civil society in Egypt. And I think that civil society will continue to be a key component in Egypt's transition.”  

Mansour, who left Egypt in 2006 after being harassed by the Mubarak regime for his rights work and obtained US citizenship in March, was detained on arrival at the Cairo airport Sunday night, and held in custody until the trial Tuesday morning. He was released after the hearing. 

“I'm also hoping by being there I can change the mental image that people have had with this case,” he says. He says the image that sticks in many people’s minds when they think of the trial is that of the foreigners leaving on a private jet, as if they were guilty. Many think the case has since been dropped. 

“And that's why I want to challenge that,” he says. “I want to … show how flawed this case is, and how political it was until it became a legal case, and hope that by the time there is a verdict in the case there will be enough support for the people involved and for the cause of independent civil society.”

Some of the Egyptians on trial feel that the world forgot about the trial after the foreigners left, and the media frenzy surrounding them died down. “It gets irritating sometimes because people talk about it like it’s over. ‘Oh, they all flew away.’ But it’s not over. They flew away, but they’re still being charged in absentia, and we’re still here,” says Hafsa Halawa, a former NDI employee who is on trial. “You feel forgotten.”

The presence of two Americans, and the German who also returned to face the charges, may change that. It is not what the US wanted. American officials had hoped for a quiet resolution to the trial after the Americans left and the hysteria died down. But Mansour hopes his presence will draw attention to what he says is a flawed US policy of placing security first, preferring the status quo, and “putting their head in the sand.” In March, the US announced it would release $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, despite earlier threats to withhold it if Egypt did not halt the prosecution of the civil society groups.

"We cannot avoid this,” says Mansour of the trial. “I think if you do you're going to be accepting defeat."   

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