Egyptian authorities today arrested an Egyptian-American democracy activist upon his arrival at Cairo International Airport.
The detention of Sherif Mansour (left), a former Freedom House program officer for the Middle East and North Africa, comes a day before the renewal of proceedings against 43 pro-democracy activists charged with receiving illegal foreign funding and coincides with a dispute over the politics of democracy assistance.
“Mansour was arrested by the airport authorities in Cairo on Sunday. He was then transferred to the Cairo security directorate. It’s still unknown whether he will attend the trial session on Tuesday,” said Mahmoud Rady, a lawyer defending the non-governmental organizations.?“The judicial authorities have not yet decided if Mansour will be released or kept in detention.”
Freedom House is one of four U.S.-based NGOs and several indigenous Egyptian civil society groups to be prosecuted in what most independent observers consider to be a politically-motivated crackdown on liberal and secular democratic forces by former regime elements. Officials and employees of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and the International Center for Journalists, were charged in February with illegal foreign funding and operating without a license.
The prosecution is continuing despite an admission by Egypt’s ambassador to Washington that the NGOs have had a “benevolent impact” in aiding civil society during the transition.
Charged in absentia, Mansour returned to face the charges in person and to contest the political rationale for the prosecution.
“I’m not under any illusion that this is going to be an easy ride,” he told The Daily Beast. “People are stuck out there, and no one is really helping them. They were left behind. Many of those people were recruited to and trained to work for us. They were doing legal, legitimate, and needed work, and my conscience cannot allow me to stay away while they are facing this on their own.”
If convicted, Mansour faces up to six years in jail, but he appears to be more concerned about the political ramifications of the case.
“I can say with confidence that this case will set a precedent—for better or worse—about the way the Egyptian government will treat civil society in the future.”
Most of his fellow US-based defendants left Egypt in March after paying approximately$5 million in bail. Their departure and the official media’s xenophobic portrayal of the case prompted many Egyptians to believe the NGO activists were guilty, says Mansour.
“That’s what sticks in people’s minds: That they’ve been doing something wrong, that’s why they escaped, and that’s why they are not challenging [the charges],” he tells the National Journal’s Sara Sorcher. “It makes sense. Why wouldn’t you stand by what you’re doing? We know it’s a fake trial. It’s a political case. But there have been so many political cases in Egypt after the revolution. But people fought it—and they won.”
The NGO trial resumes as former employees of IRI claim that the group was “playing a political agenda” and “taking sides” by refusing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest and most powerful political group.
IRI was using funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development which has a policy requiring “a good faith effort to assist all democratic parties, with equitable assistance.”
But the group’s officials reject the charges of political partisanship or bias
“The decision was made to focus our efforts on those smaller, weaker parties in the initial phase,” says Scott Mastic, IRI’s Middle East region director. “I guess what I would say is, if we worked with one party, then yes, I guess you could say that. But we didn’t. We worked with lots of parties,” he tells Associated Press:
Mastic supervised the work done by Sam LaHood, IRI’s director in Egypt who was among the group of democracy workers earlier this year accused of illegally operating and receiving foreign aid. The Egyptian government initially prohibited LaHood and other Americans charged from leaving the country, causing an international crisis that led to U.S. threats to withhold $1.5 billion in economic and military aid. But that controversy fizzled after Egypt allowed the Americans to return home and the U.S. handed over some of the aid money.
Mastic disputed claims by [former IRI] workers who resigned that the group practiced partisanship by excluding Brotherhood followers. IRI worked with some Islamist groups, he said.
The complaints against IRI provide further evidence of a widespread campaign to discredit democracy assistance in Egypt, said Mansour, the former Freedom House democracy worker.
“To make that representative for NGOs, or even representative for U.S. foreign policy, I think it’s just part of the smear campaign against civil society,” he said.
Other observers may wonder why democracy support groups are expected to fund the Brotherhood and other illiberal Islamist groups which supported the crackdown on NGOs and publicly condemned democracy assistance, while enjoying generous foreign-funding from Qatar and other Gulf states.
The “politically motivated” NGO prosecution was initiated with “the goal of smearing civil society, especially human rights organizations, and painting them as collaborators with foreign agendas and conspirators against the country’s stability,” according to 29 Egyptian NGOs.
Mansour isn’t the only U.S.-based democracy assistance official to face trial tomorrow. Robert Becker, a former NDI official, elected to stay in Cairo when most other foreign NGO officials left.
“I don’t fault my colleagues who left. There were some who wanted to stay and fight it. It was murky…. The U.S. had to fight for its people,” he tells the Los Angeles Times:
He was in a meeting with four members of Egypt’s new parliament when a Twitter message flashed that he had been charged with two felony counts and accused of fomenting instability….. In early March, Becker and 13 Egyptians stepped into a mesh cage in a courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo. It was dirty, the acoustics were bad. Lawyers hollered amid a crush of journalists and blurred faces. Becker’s Egyptian staff whispered translations of the proceedings. He said he wondered at the time if his presence would help or hurt the cases of the Egyptians; his staff, he said, told him that an American standing with them and facing a similar fate was a potent symbol for human rights.
“It’s almost as if they were testing the U.S.,” Becker says, with all of the “theatrics of an armed raid and a trial.”
Egypt’s parliament is discussing a new NGO law, reportedly based on the relatively liberal provisions of Tunisia’s regulations, but civil society and human rights groups continue to be harassed.
“It’s been a huge setback for democracy and there has been a ripple effect across society,” Becker said. Some 25,000 Egyptians monitored the parliamentary elections fewer than 10,000 observed the recent presidential poll. “That’s fear and lack of funding. Democracy doesn’t survive if citizens are afraid to organize and speak out.”
The latest spat over democracy assistance funding highlights the political sensitivities of direct funding of democracy assistance by government agencies without the filter of genuinely autonomous civil society groups, observers suggest – and some government officials concede.
“The problem was that when the revolution in Egypt took off, all kinds of sensitivities came roaring to the surface,” said Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Cairo. “And in the roiled waters, anyone who was around playing in Egyptian politics ran risks. I think our friends and the U.S. government did not appreciate the extent of those risks and weren’t prepared to deal with them.”
The U.S. government ignored clear “warning signs,” AP reports:
Former U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone wrote in a secret State Department memo in March 2008 that Egypt’s minister for international cooperation, Fayza Aboulnaga, continued to complain about U.S. money for unlicensed democracy groups that trained political activists. Ricciardone was worried that the groups, which he called partners, could be targeted by the minister, who opposed the U.S. financing of the groups unless the money went through her office.
“Our partners need to be aware that there may be legal or political consequences of accepting (U.S.) funds. We do not believe that Aboulnaga will escalate by pushing security authorities to arrest our partners or close their organizations without additional warning, but we cannot foreclose that possibility,” Ricciardone wrote in the memo released among a cache of State Department documents obtained by the website Wikileaks.
While democracy assistance groups consistently strive to support the democratic process instead of specific parties, to bolster institutions rather than individuals, government agencies clearly often adopt a less nuanced approach.
“We were picking sides,” said a senior U.S. official.
It is an approach that some analysts may consider appropriate, even necessary to level the playing field, especially when Islamist groups enjoy lavish, largely covert foreign funding from the Gulf, while Egypt’s liberal and secular groups were demonstrably more democratic but lacked resources.
“I think a lot of people thought that this was a community that demonstrated its political commitment to a democratic future that we could support. And we should support them more, yes,” a senior State Department official said.
The official said those in the Obama administration supporting that decision argued it was the right thing to do because groups backed by the military didn’t need U.S. help; the Muslim Brotherhood, already surging in political popularity with a strong national network, didn’t need U.S. support; and the remnants of the Mubarak regime didn’t need training to organize politically or manage a political campaign.
“The liberal groups, the women’s groups, we wanted them to form a coalition government, but that was never going to happen,” said another U.S. official.
“Nobody was anticipating the resurrection of the security state,” the official said. “Nobody was fully debating the tenacity of this ministry, that she would be as effective as she was. It never occurred to anybody that this ministry was going to become the most powerful political agent in Egypt over the subsequent year.”
The U.S. intervention lacked the necessary strategic planning, suggests Wisner, the former ambassador.
“Our intrusions into the political scene were just going to catch hell,” he said. “It was the wrong time to be barging into the kitchen. It was full of Egyptian cooks and they didn’t want anyone from the outside.”
The NGO case raises serious issues for U.S.-Egyptian relations and the trajectory of the Arab Spring, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, who recently left the State Department, where she was responsible for democracy assistance to the Arab world.
“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.
IRI and NDI are two of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy. Freedom House and several of the Egyptian grantees facing trial are NED grantees.