January 08, 2013

Talk of the Town: Robert Becker - The NGO trial and the assault on dignity

In December 2011, eight months after the revolution toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian police raided the Cairo offices of 10 NGOs that had been working on monitoring elections and educating both parties and voters. Included were four American NGOs - the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), The Freedom House and the International Centre for Journalists. A total of 43 persons, including 19 Americans, were accused of violating the law by not filing registration paperwork fully in accordance with the Egyptian law and therefore receiving illegal funding from outside the country. Amongst others, the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung was also implicated after having worked in Egypt with the full knowledge and approval of the Egyptian government for over 30 years.

The accusations were widely seen as absurd, especially as many NGOs had indeed filed registration papers that were lying in Egyptian offices for years without anyone dealing with them.

The impact of this surprise raid and the subsequent diplomatic row on international relations was immense, especially with Germany and the US. It was finally temporarily resolved, when the Egyptian government – in return for a substantial payment of million of dollars bail – allowed the foreign staffers to leave the country on March 1 on a US military plane.

One American however did not board the plane: Robert Becker, Political Party Trainer and Election Observer with the NDI, stayed in Egypt despite his NGO employer demanding him to do otherwise. Together with his Egyptian staff he has been facing the ongoing NGO trial ever since, spending almost every 4 weeks for hours in a cage at the Cairo court hoping that one day the verdict will show, that they are all not guilty and can go free.

The next session in the NGO trial will take place on January 10 at 10 a.m. After a year of stressful times spend in a slow-grinding trial it seemed a good time to ask Robert Becker about his motives to stay behind, about the impact the trial has on his life and the life of his Egyptian colleagues, and about the future after a verdict that hopefully will speak in their favour.

The raid - the charges - the interrogation - the training of parties and voters

The raid was a complete surprise to us.

There was no warrant. There was no explanation. They seized files, computers, pretty much stripped the building.

I learned from the charges via twitter. There was a news conference from the prosecutor that a journalist from AJE tweeted. That's when I saw my name and learned I was charged. This is not the usual way it's done.

This was a surprise. This was a real setback for Egypt coming out from the Mubarak regime.

The plane left without him - fired by NDI - in clash with US foreign policy - Fayza Aboul Naga started this smear campaign

I got fired. Did it upset me - yeah, it did. On the other hand I did defy direct orders.

It was an assault on civil society and I personally decided that it was a fight worth fighting.

There was a working theory: If all the foreigners left, the Egyptian government would go easy on the Egyptian staff. To which I countered my working theory, that if all the foreigners leave, they might retaliate against the Egyptian staff.

If democracy is to survive in Egypt following the revolution, the citizens have to be a part of it. People have to not fear organising at the local level. - This democracy won't survive without the active participation of the Egyptian people.

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.

All NGOs felt that they were very wronged in this raid.

The 15 of us that are standing in the cage - I think we all wish our governments would be a bit more vocal.

So far there hasn't been any evidence presented against us.

If you ask me who started this and who I would pin the blame on I would say former Minister Fayza Aboul Naga.

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.

Is it a "smear campaign"? Yes, it is.

The cage - the judges - the defendants - "The Egyptian defendants are patriots"

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.

The one blessing we have is, we have a set of judges that seem to be focused on the facts of the case.

We are required to be there. But there's no active participation in the case. It's a mesh cage and you can't hear anything. We're ushered into the cage and we don't come out until court's adjourned.

There are 13 Egyptians in that case who took these jobs to help improve their country. To me they're great patriots. Their only 'crime' is to work very hard to see a better Egypt.

Impact on the Egyptians - Bio is blemished even if acquitted - Impact on economy: Scared off investors - Reaction of Egyptians after the foreigners were allowed to leave on plane: a shift in opinion

Most NDI staff lost job and it hurt their careers. - There is a bit of a stigma.

Tens of millions of investor's Euros are on hold.

Okasha in his talk show was calling for our execution, questioning the patriotism of the Egyptians that worked for these NGOs. You had members of parliament that were doing the same thing. - I had more than a fair share of death threats in January and February 2012.

There was a general shift in public opinions after the foreigners were allowed to leave on that plane. So that I think today most Egyptians are convinced that the trial is a farce.

The future of Egypt is the youth. Egypt needs my colleagues engaged in the political and civil society process moving forward. They need hundreds of folks like that.

I hope that a new NGO law will get us where we were one-and-a-half years ago when there was a general new sense of freedom on the streets of Egypt. Because 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.

No change since the Muslim Brotherhood president was elected - Lessons to be learned - What is missing is the thought about dignity

The Morsi administration could have reached out to organisations, parties and groups outside of their folds, in the human rights world, in the judicial reform world, with the liberal parties, to build sort of a national consensus for the need for change. To bring people inside the tent to build a better Egypt. Instead they did the decree and sort of fast tracked this whole process and made it clear that they did not want the help of any outside party.

The lesson that Egyptians in power need to learn: In a democracy there's winning and there's losing. When you win the parliament, you control the spoils of winning. But when you're writing a constitution or when you try to address the nation as a whole you have to reach out and work across party lines, across ideological lines. Otherwise you get into a bunker mentality.

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.

This is a very political case. And the last thing Egypt needs right now is a guilty verdict on it. Mainly because there is no evidence for it. But as much as the international media has stopped covering it, I bet they would start covering it again if it came down with a guilty verdict.

Moving forward, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to get out of its bunker mentality. They need to start reaching out to the NGO world, civil society world, the political parties, because there are very, very large problems that need solutions.

The thing I think is missing the most now in Egyptian politics from all sides is the dignity. With lot of the economic things that are coming out, there is not a lot of thought process about what this is doing to the dignity of the Egyptian man or woman the way they are living in the country. And the biggest assault I have seen in this country is an assault on their dignity.


You can follow Robert Becker on twitter at @rbecker51

Information on the ongoing trial you find under the hashtag #NGOtrial

You can view the interview in one complete sequence at the Atlantic Council

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