ThinkProgress: EXCLUSIVE: Persecuted Pro-Democracy Activist Robert Becker On Egyptian Democracy, by Andrea Peterson

On June 4th an Egyptian court convicted 43 nonprofit workers of illegally using foreign funds to create unrest in the country for training local activists on how to run political campaigns. Only one of the sixteen Americans, Robert Becker, remained in the country for the trial…

Becker gave an exclusive interview to ThinkProgress from exile in Brussels on June 17th about the trial, the U.S. government reaction, and the future of Democracy on Egypt…

IDsHow would you describe the work that you were doing in Egypt?

… NDI was one of several international organizations to be chosen by the Egyptian government to be international elections overseers. We were all issued, including myself, government ID badges with our photograph on it, barcode, that got us access to polling places throughout Egypt. And it was in the middle of our observation mission — the parliamentary election was done in three stages — that there was an armed commando raid of our office and 16 other NGOs throughout Egypt…

Can you tell me about your decision to stay in Egypt while the rest of the NDI crew left the country?

Yeah, it was actually a pretty easy decision for me. There were 43 people charged from five different organizations, four American NGOs and one German NGO. At ours, it was 15 people, four of which were Egyptian, two of which worked directly for me. So from the very beginning, I wasn’t going to leave the country if my staff was facing felony charges for working for us. So it was, you know, ‘How dare we come to a country like Egypt and preach democracy and human rights?’ We get hit with a couple of paperwork felonies and our instinct is to run and leave our employees behind. So that was my decision to stay. It was against the wishes of the organization and my reward was, five days after I appeared in court in March, I was fired.

Have you had any sort of involvement with NDI since then?

Very little. I was fired by Ken Wollack, the president, via email. The trial took almost a year and a half. NDI’s strategy, as well as the other American organizations, was to go silent, almost like, ‘If we hold our breath and close our eyes and plug our ears this’ll go away.’

 

It was a strategy I didn’t agree with… I believe if you’re wrongfully accused, you gotta fight. Part of this case is, the case has been completely political from the beginning, and it’s been a battle of public opinion within Egyptian media and we chose not to engage there.

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… To win the hearts and minds of people you’ve got to be in the arena, and it’s been mind-boggling to me that we would not enter the arena and advocate for what NGOs do, not just international NGOs, because this crackdown has been widespread, domestic NGOs. Now you’ve got the Brotherhood pushing a new draft NGO law which is even more draconian than the one they had under Mubarak. Political NGOs are a small part of the sphere. The whole point of civil society is to pick up where government leaves off, and Egypt’s government leaves off a lot…

What did you think about Secretary Kerry’s statement about the NGO convictions?

Well, let’s just say I appreciate the fact that he’s deeply concerned and I appreciate the fact that fifty members of Congress sent a letter to President Morsi, fourteen Senators, and so my follow-up question is ‘Now what?’ This case has been going on for two years, the non-engagement strategy has clearly not worked. You’ve got U.S. citizens that were invited by the Egyptian government to be election monitors that have been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison. You’ve got Egyptians that took jobs working on behalf of United States NGOs that have been convicted one year, suspended, but a felony conviction in Egypt is death in the job market. You have some of us of various nationalities that are sort of now locked. And so my question is ‘What now?’

 

You’ve got four organizations in the U.S.: NDI, IRI (International Republican Institute), which are affiliated with the two major political parties, Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalism, that have basically gone silent. You go to their Facebook page, nothing, Twitter feed, nothing. Other than promoting the fact that their president’s testified before Congress, where’s the advocacy? NDI brags about working in 120 nations around the world, teaching civil society and political activists how to advocate for their rights. When exactly are they going to advocate for their own people? NDI has a board of directors that is a who’s who of the Democratic Party. There are six people on there that have been major contenders for the presidency of the United States. Where’s the high-level delegation in Cairo having a conversation to negotiate the overturning of these sentences?

Do you think that an appropriate response would be to call into question some of the military aid?

Too late. We already signed off on that, so that leverage is gone. We signed off on that last month. Look, here’s the problem: You have a court system that initiated this thing because of politics, that prosecuted this thing because of politics, that convicted us because of politics. You’ve got three sets of defendants now: You’ve got those who were found guilty in absentia. Legally, they’re done. The only way they can get a retrial is to come back to Egypt and enter an Egyptian prison. You’ve got eleven Egyptians that have a suspended felony conviction on them. Maybe they have a good shot at an appeal, maybe not. You’ve got five of us, myself included, with a two-year sentence.

 

In order for me to win, I’ve got to go step inside an Egyptian courtroom knowing that if my appeal is not overturned, off to prison I go. So the court system is out. The only opportunity to resolve this is through the presidency, and you can’t expect President Morsi to take action on this. As much as he’s done wrong in the year he’s been president, he didn’t start this, he inherited this. So news releases from Washington criticizing him are not helping the matter. I want to know, where’s the high-level delegation of Americans in Cairo having a conversation with him and his government about coming up with a way to resolve this? Anybody can send a press release from Washington criticizing Morsi? That doesn’t help.

527480_10151246244300180_1087843082_nSo what do you think the next step will be for your Egyptian colleagues?

Well, one year sentences suspended for three years with some sort of vague ruling that they can’t do any similar activities. Basically, the courts have told them they cannot help move the country forward. So they may or may not be able to find jobs in other sectors, but their future in politics and civil society is done at least for the short term…

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got out of the country?

The verdict was read out at 11:30 a.m. It was initially very unclear what the verdict was because the judges did it behind a bank of about 30 microphones and it was sort of a garbled one-minute statement and then off they went. So I had about an hour where it was unclear whether I was sentenced to two years straight away or if it was suspended. When my lawyers finally figured it out, my top concern was the Egyptians. When I was one hundred percent sure that they were not in imminent danger of prison I decided it was time for me to get going because they would come looking for me as soon as that day. So I just went to the Cairo airport and boarded the first flight out, very simple. Flew to Rome, got inside the EU bubble and here I sit. I’m not at risk.

It sounds like you don’t have a very good idea of what’s next for you.

No, I don’t because my home is in Cairo, my business is based in Cairo — and it does not look like there’s going to be a court resolution any time soon. There’s been no, as far as I know, direct engagement with President Morsi to resolve this. He’s got bigger problems than this on his plate with the June 30th protests that are coming, the crisis with Ethiopia, the newly-declared jihad against Syria, so I don’t see this getting resolved any time soon. And it’s unfortunate because the only people that are suffering on this are the Egyptians. Never mind me, I’m a big boy, I can take care of myself, but the repercussions of this go way beyond just the American and the German NGOs involved and it affects civil society as a whole and if civil society cannot function, then it’s not a democracy. So we’re sort of back to square one on Egypt, and it’s unfortunate because tens of millions of Egyptians are going to suffer if this government collapses.

So it sounds like you don’t really have any sort of faith at all that Egyptian democracy is going in the right direction at this point in time.

No. They’ve had some pretty fair elections, and that’s an important part… but any functioning democracy anywhere in the world is based on three fundamental freedoms: Freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression. All three of those freedoms are under attack now in Egypt, so the United States and the E.U. and other countries that are sort of diplomatically dealing with Egypt need to recognize the fact that if those freedoms don’t exist, it is not a democracy, so stop calling it that. We have to stop patting the Morsi administration on the back and start recognizing the fact that they are taking this country backwards, that some of those freedoms are even in worse shape than they were when Mubarak was in power.

6unbpIs there anything else that you’d like to discuss?

I’d just like to know when the four organizations are going to actually start practicing what they preach and advocating for their citizens, for their employees. You’ve got four organizations that, collectively, between Facebook and Twitter have 136,000 followers. They have not been doing a thing. What is the point of being an advocacy organization if you’re not going to fight for your own people? If I had 136,000 followers, I’d be asking them to send a letter to President Morsi asking for a pardon. If I had a board of directors that included six people who ran for the presidency of the United States, I’d be sending a delegation to Cairo to have a conversation.