The Washington Post: An interview with Robert Becker, the American NGO worker detained in Egypt, by Andrea Peterson

… At the time of the raid, myself personally and many of those charged in the case were election observers — that was our job. Ironically, the Egyptian government, today talking about its road map back to democracy, is indicating they would like to have election observers again. My message is that you have to unconvict those who tried to do it the first time.

A March 2012 photos shows Robert Becker during his detention in an Egyptian jail, alongside Egyptian NGO workers. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

A March 2012 photos shows Robert Becker during his detention in an Egyptian jail, alongside Egyptian NGO workers. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. government recently announced it is going to be suspending some military aid to Egypt, do you have any thoughts on that?

In a word, I think it’s a joke. The time to have suspended aid would have been two years ago when they launched raids on civil society orgs, targeted American institutions, put travel bans on Americans and Europeans and put Egyptians and Americans on trial. Now, it’s first of all not a total suspension of aid. It’s tinkering around on the edges with some F-16s and some M-1 tanks. The impact on Egyptian society and the working class as a whole is negligible. Quite frankly, I’m a little alarmed by the lack of creativity the U.S. is bringing to our relations with Egypt because now is not the time to be suspending aid, it’s the time to be doubling down on aid — not military aid, but aid to civil society.

 

Civil society has been eviscerated in the past two years, and part of a road map back to democracy is going to require civil society activists to be part of the process. So I would not be cutting a couple of planes here and there, I’d be coming to the table saying: Great, you have a nine-month road map back to democracy. We would like to help. We would like to provide a robust international observation mission partnering with the European Union and the African Union — first you’d have to unconvict the election observers you’ve sentenced to prison — but in the scheme of things, the Gulf states can help the economy with money, they’ve pledged $16 billion. But Saudi Arabia cannot come in and teach democracy or be election observers — the Kuwaitis, the UAE, they can’t do that. That’s what we do. And now is not when we should be backing away, it’s when we should be doubling down and moving forward. So it’s very disappointing to me that our reaction is to sort of cut some things, because it’s not going to change the ground game.

I know you’ve expressed previously to me a lot of frustration about how the U.S. responded to your case. How do you feel about it at this point?

The U.S. response has been no response. At the time, when they targeted us directly, yes, we made some noise in December of 2011 and January of 2012 and our reaction was to airlift out the Americans and the other foreign nationals. And that was it. We stopped. There was very little involvement during the year and a half of the trial, very little involvement after our conviction, and no sign of it now. In fact, the State Department’s statement recently didn’t even mention civil society, NGOs, any of it. The former ambassador just went through a Senate confirmation hearing for her promotion to deputy secretary of state — no mention of it. Not only our case, but the ongoing assault on civil society as a whole.

 

That is where American leadership and American values would be useful, and we’re just not doing it. The statement [about suspending military aid] — I don’t know what to make of it: We’re going to suspend military aid, but we’re going to keep this, keep this and keep this. So basically, it’s a whole lot of noise and nothing changes. In fact, the only thing this decision is potentially helping is to embolden the Muslim Brotherhood protest movement. So their response has been frankly laughable and extremely disappointing.

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… now is not the time to walk away. Where is the American leadership on this? We should be pushing forward a robust agenda for election-monitoring and civil society, and we’re not. That’s very disappointing. President Obama set a whole new tone for the Middle East when he went to Cairo in 2009 to give a speech, and the most disappointing part of that speech is that it appears now, four years later, he didn’t mean a word of it.

 

… my biggest concern moving forward is that 43 people were convicted in this case. Never mind me — I have a U.S. passport, I have freedom of movement. But there are Egyptians who cannot go home, and their crime was coming to work for an American organization. If we are going to say that we support civil society in the Middle East and we support democracy in the Middle East, we need to back up our words, and we need to stand with our people, whether they are American or Egyptian. There needs to be a resolution so that these Egyptians can go home. Every day when I wake up, that’s where my fight is at, trying to get these guys home.