NGO Trial: Another Day in the Cage

NGO detention

Tomorrow Egypt will see another court session in what has become widely known as the NGO trial. In December 2011, eight months after Hosni Mubarak was toppled and just days after the first free parliamentary election phase began, Egyptian police raided the Cairo offices of 10 non-governmental organizations (NGO) that were working in Egypt, monitoring elections and educating parties and voters in the country. Initially, no reason was given for the raids in which a total of 43 NGO staffers, including 19 Americans, were held at gunpoint while watching their offices get ransacked. Computers, files, private laptops and even cash was taken without a warrant shown or an explanation given. It took almost two months until the prosecution released both the accusations and the names of those officially being charged.

Robert Becker, at the time a political party trainer and election observer for the American NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), still recalls how he learned that a court case was going to shape his future. A journalist from Al Jazeera was live-tweeting from the press conference of the public prosecutor and disclosed Becker’s name on Twitter. Becker, at the time in a meeting with an Egyptian party delegation, was shocked.

The allegations sounded harsh: violation of Egyptian law by receiving illegal funding from outside the country while not filing registration papers with the authorities. To many this sounded absurd knowing that registration papers of many NGOs had been filed years ago and sat idly on Egyptian administration desks ever since. In addition, even the German organization, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, was implicated in the case despite having worked in Egypt with the full knowledge and approval of the Egyptian government for over 30 years. It was hard to believe this was not a political case.

The diplomatic row that erupted over this significantly damaged relations between both America and Germany and the Egyptian transitional government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and finally resulted in a dubious deal. In return for a substantial payment of as much as $5 million dollars in bail, on March 1 a US military plane was allowed to ferry the foreign NGO staffers off to America and Germany. Left behind were the Egyptians that had worked for the NGOs – and Robert Becker – the  only American who refused to board the plane.

"It was an assault on civil society and I personally decided that it was a fight worth fighting", says Becker who could not relate to the working theory of the diplomats that if all the foreigners left, the Egyptian government would go easy on the Egyptians. Besides, says Becker even now after a year of tiresome court sessions, getting out was no option. "How dare we as an American NGO come to this country and preach democracy and preach human rights – and the first time that we get hit with some paperwork felonies, the instinct is to run?" His employer, propagating the principles of democracy and free speech in his portfolio, could not relate to this. A few days after the plane left, Becker received an email from NDI. He was fired. "Did it upset me – yeah, it did", says the pro who has 23 years to his record in the field of political training and has never encountered anything like this case in his work around the world.

Ever since, Becker and 14 others share a cage in a Cairo court almost every four weeks. The conditions for the Egyptian defendants and their American colleague are hard to take. "No chairs allowed", says Becker, who points out that standing for up to six hours can be a strain. Strangely enough, during the Mubarak trial all defendants accused of the murder of protesters could comfortably lounge on benches in their cage. The NGO defendants however have to make do with sitting on newspapers spread on the floor or leaning against the wall. Worse however in Becker’s eyes is the problem of following the trial from within the cage, constructed of dense mesh. "It is very difficult to hear, what is being said. People accused of a crime should have the basic right to hear what the lawyers and judges and witnesses are saying", he points out, recalling the testimony of former Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, who is widely blamed for this trial to be held.

Only from others reporting from within the court room did they later learn that she talked for over two hours but had nothing substantial to say. While one judge fell asleep, another urged the ex- Minister to come to the point, to no avail. "Her testimony was rather outstanding. She proved our point that this is simply a political case. None of her testimonies had anything to do with the charges brought against us", remembers Becker who, since no other evidence against them has been produced so far, is cautiously hopeful that this trial might yet end with an acquittal. "I certainly don’t want to spend the next four to six years in an Egyptian prison, but it is a distinct possibility. I have seen stranger things happen in this country", he says and marvels at his Egyptian friends and colleagues who bravely share the hardships of the cage with him. "Fixing the problems of 30 years of dictatorship is going to take a long, long time. And Egypt needs the valuable contribution of these Egyptians that are in the cage. I consider them patriots. They worked, really, really hard to make Egypt better."

It is a sentiment that Egypt, still battling with the legacy of Mubarak’s autocratic rule and shakily trying to find its way into democracy, has not yet found the strength to echo. Tomorrow, at 10 a.m., all have to be back in court to face another grueling day of uncertainties in a chairless cage.

Watch the full interview with Robert Becker below:

Jonathan Moremi is an award-winning writer, journalist and blogger, concentrating mainly on Egypt and the Middle East in his reporting since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. You can follow him on twitter at @jonamorem.

Photo: Al-Arabiya

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