Of the fifteen employees from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) charged in the December 2011 crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) we are all that remain in Egypt to face these charges and loudly and proudly proclaim our innocence. A dozen other equally innocent and brave defendants from the Freedom House, International Republican Institute (IRI), International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation will join us.
What do we expect tomorrow? We have no idea. We could be in court daily throughout September or there could be another delay. The uncertainty of what’s next is a fact of life for us. Our only certainty is our unwavering determination to keep walking into that cage defying our accusers to produce any evidence of our guilt.
We are charged with two felony counts of teaching democracy. Daily we are thanked and encouraged by our fellow Egyptian activists. Daily other NGO workers, who now must carefully navigate their passion for a better Egypt, lest they end up in the same cage, applaud us. For that support we are eternally grateful.
But daily we also grapple with the reality that when this trial ends, we could end up in prison.
Democracy will not survive without a free and vibrant civil society. Citizens must be allowed the space to organize and operate without fear or imprisonment, whether it be holding politicians accountable through anti-corruption campaigns or forming local NGOs to combat literacy rates.
These are universal truths NGOs like NDI advocate throughout the world. And when an international NGO’s employees are targeted in an armed raid, banned from travel, slandered in the state media and falsely accused of felonies, NGOs loudly and aggressively defend their employees, engaging in a global effort, using every organizing tool at their disposal to ensure the freedom and innocence of their workers.
Or, in the case of NDI, not so much.
This past week NDI hosted the International Leaders Forum in Charlotte, North Caroline during the Democratic Party’s national convention. NDI’s social media operation was in full swing, filling Facebook and Twitter timelines touting various discussion panels like “Democracy Spotlight” and “21st Century Campaigns”. NDI Board Chair Madeleine Albright (recently nominated for a Presidential Medal of Freedom) was quoted and promoted often throughout the week.
This worldwide gathering of leaders and journalists and politicians was the perfect platform for NDI to press their case for the freedom and innocence of their Egyptian employees. The perfect place to hold a panel discussion on the global implications of Egypt’s crackdown on civil society. The perfect opportunity to engage journalists and almost every elected Democratic Party member about the injustice inflicted upon NDI’s workers in Egypt.
But they didn’t. Not one mention in Charlotte of the NGO crackdown in Egypt from NDI can be found in the news.
In the digital age an organization’s priorities are clearly visible to the masses online via social media. Campaigns are waged. Allies are recruited. Activists are engaged. Petitions are circulated. Yet NDI’s web page bears no mention of our plight on its front page, and it has been six months since we have even been mentioned on their Facebook page or on their Twitter feed.
I am inspired in life by a quote from one of my political heroes, the late US Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota:
If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.
Tonight thousands of NDI employees span the globe – some working in countries still ruled by despots – bravely teaching and mentoring equally brave activists willing to engage in the struggle for democracy and human rights. When teaching the tenants of organizing or the critical importance of message development and media campaigns, not one of these NDI trainers will teach silence in the face of adversity.
Sadly, NDI’s leadership does not practice what they preach. Our plight was clearly not their priority in Charlotte.
Tomorrow Rawda, Hafsa, Mohamed, Amged and myself will again stand in a cage.
We will fight for the democratic truths we believe in. We will fight for our freedom.
We will be found not guilty. Insha’Allah.
NOTE: Despite verbal assurances all of the accused NDI employees would be paid throughout the duration of the trial, I was fired a few days after appearing in court in March via an email by NDI President Ken Wollack. I was ordered by NDI’s Washington, DC office to abandon my co-workers and depart Egypt on a US Government plane when the travel ban was lifted and my two-million pound bail was paid. I refused that order knowing full well NDI would probably fire me. My defiance was out of loyalty to my Egyptian colleagues. It cost me my job, but offer me a hundred more opportunities to defy that order, and I will again.
Final thought: Just saw this tweet from the US Embassy in Cairo:
RT @USEmbassyCairo: #AmbPatterson to #USBizDel: US gov shares view of business analysts that #Egypt has great opportunities
It is a great irony the very day we re-enter the cage, a hundred American CEOs will be fettered around Cairo and shown all the wondrous possibilities to invest in Egypt. Truly hope they enjoy everything this remarkable city has to offer!