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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.

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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.

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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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