Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
One of the 14 Egyptian activists accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and receiving illegal foreign funds, speaks with American Robert Becker (l.) of the National Democratic Institute in a cage during their trial in Cairo March 8.

Mostly forgotten, Egyptian trial of US NGO workers drags on

Sam LaHood and most of the other Americans accused of running illegal nongovernmental organizations fled the country last year. But 14 Egyptians and one American continue to face jail.

Some days Hafsa Halawa just wants it to be over. For the US and Egypt, an eventual verdict could be just the beginning.

An Egyptian-UK dual citizen, Ms. Halawa was one of 15 people in a filthy cage in an Cairo courtroom last week, on trial for the crime of working with two US democracy promotion groups and a German one in 2011. In all, 43 people are on trial for this "crime." The balance are foreign nationals who fled the country, many of them US citizens, rather than face trial.

While there had been some hope for a verdict within the next month, the trial was adjourned until March 6 and could drag on well beyond it at this point. While the stress of a disrupted life and threat of jail time sometimes gets to her, she says she has few regrets about not fleeing the country.

"I wouldn’t call it a choice" to stay behind, she says. "Because my life and my family is here. But I of course could take the (UK) passport and run off. But I haven’t done anything wrong. I don’t want it to look that way, that I have done something wrong, that would not sit well with me."

The proceedings – which began with armed raids on the US government-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and a few other groups in Dec. 2011 – have laid bare the limits of international democracy promotion efforts in Egypt in the post-Mubarak era.

Those original raids, with hints in the Egyptian press that the government would seek treason and espionage charges that could carry the death penalty, alarmed both the US government and the organizations and led to a standoff over their foreign employees.

American who stayed behind

Seven of the Americans charged holed up in the US embassy for weeks in early 2012, until the Egyptian government, then run by a military junta, lifted a travel ban on the foreigners. The Americans scurried from the embassy to a US-government plane and fled the country. Among them was Sam LaHood, the IRI director and son of Obama administration Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Robert Becker, a career campaign organizer for Democrats in the US who has also conducted political training from Indonesia to Rwanda, elected to stay behind in solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues and was fired by NDI for his decision.

Mr. Becker says "he has absolutely no regrets" about his decision to stay and refusal to seek sanctuary in the embassy, saying that he felt he couldn't abandon the local people he'd worked with – or the principle of the case. "How dare we preach human rights and democracy and run at the first time we're facing paper felonies," he says. "To me [his Egyptian colleagues] are the future of this country and they're worth fighting for. They had nowhere to run. There was no way I could morally justify hopping on a plane."

The departure of most of the Americans took the air out of musings in Washington that Egypt's US aid would be cut off in retaliation and in general press coverage of the case. Further easing concerns were the eventual charges, around the question of illegally receiving foreign funding for the NGOs, which carries jail time, but not a death sentence. Press coverage has dwindled to a trickle.

Civil society growth at stake

Yet the stakes of the ongoing trial, which is scheduled to resume on March 6, loom large for the future of the development of civil society in Egypt as much as they do for the 13 Egyptians, American, and German who have remained behind. "The government has successfully stigmatized the NGO world," says Becker."

"It’s very lazy to to class this as an American-Egypt battle, or about the former regime versus the revolution," says Halawa, who joined NDI in Cairo in July of 2011 and worked on training Egyptian political parties on grass-roots organization, poll-watching, and outreach. "It’s about civil society in this country and the ramifications are quite huge. You get the feeling that people are quite scared. We joined up with the revolution, to fight for free elections, most of us were election observes, and most of us weren’t planning to stay on much longer."

Halawa and other defendants complain that Egypt's NGO community has not rallied around them, frightened off by the early claims in the Egyptian press that they were spies or guilty of treason. That tactic was a staple of the Mubarak-era, and the meme was pushed hard by Mubarak holdover Fayza Aboul Naga, minister of international cooperation until earlier this year, who had long been at the sharp end of Mubarak-era efforts to prevent civil society from flourishing here.

Working without formal approval

Most of those who fled, the foreigners in management positions at the NGOs, are charged with illegally operating NGOs, including Mr. Becker, notwithstanding that he had no management role and was here as a political parties trainer and election observer. The Egyptians on trial and dual-nationals like Halawa are charged with illegally receiving foreign funds – their paychecks.

The crux of the case is that the NGOs never received formal approval to operate here, despite long-standing working relationships with the foreign ministry and state security. In 2006, the activities of NDI and IRI in Egypt were briefly suspended, though eventually resumed operations after working out an operating relationship with the government. Official registration, though, was never granted.

After the uprising against Mubarak in 2011, the US and other government's increased funding for democracy organizations here. NDI and IRI, which run largely on grants from the US government's National Endowment for Democracy, provided political training to all-comers, from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party to the April 6 Movement, which played a major role in the democracy protests that swept Mubarak from power.

The case against them appears week, since some arms of the government were openly working with the NGOs at the same time another arm began proceedings against them. "One government agency is doing a commando raid [against NDI, his employer] and another government agency is giving me a laminated bar-coded badge that allowed me to go talk to a judge while voting is going on," says Becker of the situation in late 2011.

Becker, the son of a DC-area firefighter, says he understands why NDI fired him, since he refused their order to leave the country. NDI's working theory was that if all the Americans left, Egypt would drop the case against the Egyptians who stayed behind. His theory was that his departure would make it even easier for the government to prosecute the Egyptians. "I've seen Egyptian activists go to prison for less," he says. "Of course, we'll never know who was right."

For now, all the defendants who remain behind are free to travel under the terms of their bonds. Becker has traveled abroad for work on multiple occasions while he waits for the trial to finish.

That denoument could prove ugly from the perspective of those who fled. Egypt's system doesn't allow the accused to provide a defense if they're not present in court, and almost always hands down convictions in absentia, so it's possible that Becker and the others here in Cairo could be acquitted while Mr. LaHood and the others are convicted, notwithstanding that they're all essentially facing the same charges.

Fighting a battle alone

Though the background to the charges is clearly political, Halawa says "I have complete faith that politics doesn’t have influence on this case. The judge has been very fair, to the letter of the law, which should technically mean innocence for everyone," she says. "The in absentia verdicts for those not here are something else … but that’s not really my problem."

She says she has some bitterness with the way NDI has handled the proceedings since they started. But her real dissapointment is with Egyptian civil society groups that, she says, have failed to rally around their cause.

"It’s not about me or my story being told, but about this idea that no one in this country ... no one is talking about this case and quite simply we’re all fed up with having to fight this battle on our own. We’ve been stung quite hard enough by politics and civil society in this country so that it’s quite unlikely that any of us will go back into this field in Egypt any time soon again."

After saying that, Halawa pauses briefly and reconsiders.

"I accept there’s much more important stuff that’s happening, but you kind of reach the point when you’re like, 'when are you going to start speaking up?'" She continues: "Either you want to work for a transition or not. I will defend to the hilt what we did and I am very proud of what I did. I got to travel Egypt, met people who changed the way I look at this country and the way I view this transition and this revolution and it’s motivated me more to stay somehow in politics or some arm of civil society when it's all over."

(This story was edited after posting to correct the name of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation).

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