An American democracy worker appeared in a Cairo courtroom cage today with fellow Egyptian defendants charged with illegally using foreign funds for political purposes. But the judge adjourned the case against 43 pro-democracy activists until April 10.
Robert Becker, who works for the National Democratic Institute, one of the NGOs targeted in the case, was hailed as a hero on social networking sites for staying in Cairo out of solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues.
“Unfortunately, they put the American in the cage with the others,” said Sarwat Abdel Shahid, a defense lawyer for NDI and the International Center for Journalists. “It’s not a murder. It’s not dealing with drugs. It’s a political case, and they shouldn’t be in a cage.”
Nancy Okail (left), a defendant who heads the Egypt office of Freedom House, said she was “optimistic.”
“I’m very optimistic. We have nothing to hide and are convinced of our innocence. If the civil society lawyers have proof, let them show it,” she told AFP:
The hearing was briefly suspended by the judge after outbursts from civil society lawyers over their “indignation” that the foreign defendants had been allowed to travel.
“Where is the dignity in Egypt? Down with America!,” shouted one lawyer.
“This is a case of espionage and a plot against the people,” said another lawyer, who insisted “Egypt’s heart is bleeding.”
One lawyer even called for the execution of “those who compromised the integrity of Egyptian territory.”
“It’s clearly a politicized case. Have we ever in Egypt seen investigating judges holding a press conference,” said defense lawyer Hafez Abu Saeda.
The NGO case raises serious issues for U.S.-Egyptian relations and the trajectory of the Arab Spring, says Tamara Wittes, who recently left the State Department, where she was responsible for democracy assistance to the Arab world, to rejoin the Brookings Institution’s Saba Center.
“One is whether U.S. assistance to Egypt all has to go through a centralized point in the Egyptian government or whether the U.S. can use its assistance to build independent relationships with others in Egyptian society,” she says.
“The second big issue is about civil society and associational freedom and what approach is post-revolutionary Egypt going to take to its own NGOs,” Wittes says, referring to nongovernmental organizations.
“The idea that community-based grass-roots organizations inside Egypt should be able to reach out to and partner with counterparts in other countries, this should not be controversial. This is a core component of freedom of association, well rooted in international law,” she says.
Egyptians are struggling with the legacy of authoritarianism, says Wittes, and the results will have a profound impact on the wider region.
“It’s culturally, economically, historically a dominant influence on the rest of the Arab world,” she says. “So the path Egypt takes is going to have a significant influence on the trajectory in the rest of the region.”
But Ray LaHood (above) believes the Islamists are likely to support less repressive laws governing civil society given their experience of repression under the former regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
“The Muslim Brotherhood knows better than anybody else the nasty tactics that the Mubarak government had used in the past,” LaHood says. “There is within the Muslim Brotherhood — and within a lot of these other groups that are newly elected to Parliament — interest in reforming these laws to making them more open.”