Via The Christian Science Monitor, by Dan Murphy:


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.

… 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.


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”…


… 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 class this as an American-Egypt battle, or about the former regime versus the revolution,” says [Hafsa] 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”…

This is what Fayza Aboul Naga looks like from inside a cage.

This is what Fayza Aboul Naga looks like from inside a cage.


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…


… The case against them appears weak, 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…


… 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.


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…