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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 / June 5, 2012

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.

Mohammed Asad/AP/File

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Cairo

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.

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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.

“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.

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