Activists, accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo on March 8, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).
By Isobel Coleman
Last fall, I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of my Iranian-American former research assistant, Negar Razavi, who married Sherif Mansour, an Egyptian democracy activist. It was one of those only-in-America gatherings, bringing together a remarkable cross-section of Iranians and Egyptians. I loved how, standing in the rolling fields of Pennsylvania, both sides made dueling toasts about whose civilization stretched further back into history. That joyous occasion was much on my mind when I heard that Sherif had returned to Egypt this weekend to stand trial as one of the civil society activists accused by the Egyptian government of illegal democracy promotion activities. Last December, the Egyptian police raided seventeen civil society organizations including several U.S.-based NGOs and some local NGOs receiving overseas funding. The government arrested 43 people, including 16 Americans. It refused to let seven Americans charged in the crackdown leave the country and relented only after the U.S. paid about $300,000 in bail per U.S. citizen. Sherif, who for the past several years has managed the Middle East North Africa programs for Freedom House, was indicted in absentia since he was not in Egypt at the time of the crackdown.
The NGO debacle sparked a crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations. Congress passed a law in December making the United States’ annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt contingent on several conditions, including the Egyptian military supporting the shift to civilian rule through free elections. But in an effort to smooth things over in March, Secretary Clinton waived the conditions and allowed the release of military aid to Egypt. The Egyptian government responded shortly afterward by trying to get Interpol to issue warrants for the American NGO workers who were already out of Egypt when the charges were brought against them. Interpol declined this request. As the trial gets underway, U.S.-Egyptian relations are likely to be sorely tested again.
Knowing how principled and determined Sherif is, I was not surprised to learn that he was going back to stand trial. Freedom House was strongly against his return, so he resigned last week to pursue that course of action. His decision to stand trial is driven in part out of a sense of solidarity with Egyptian NGO workers who lacked the option simply to leave the country. As he states, “Many of those people were recruited and trained to work for us. They were doing legal, legitimate, and needed work, and my conscience cannot allow me to stand away while they are facing this on their own.” He also notes the historic role of the case: “This is a case that’s going to define the role of civil society in Egypt, not just in Egypt, and the Middle East transitions, but across the world. So I think that if there’s a chance to fight it to the end, we should.” Sherif was detained at the airport when he arrived in Egypt on Sunday; if convicted, he could be imprisoned for up to six years.
Sherif will stand trial alongside another American, Robert Becker, who worked for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and with a similar sense of responsibility for the Egyptian members of NDI’s staff, refused to leave with the other American NGO workers. As Becker said in a recent interview, “Captains stay with their crew.” Reflecting on his work in Egypt, Becker emphasized NDI’s transparency and nonpartisanship, explaining that he and his team gave democratic training to “three to four thousand political activists all over the country,” ranging from the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) to the labor- and youth-oriented April 6th movement.
There have been reports that some of the accused NGOs were indeed taking political sides in Egypt. NPR recently reported that two months before last December’s raids, seven Egyptian employees of the International Republican Institute (IRI) quit after complaining that IRI refused to train members of Islamist organizations and instead only focused on liberal parties. Their complaints echoed those of the Egyptian government–that U.S.-backed democracy promotion efforts were not really about building democracy in Egypt but rather promoting U.S. interests. IRI disputes that it was partisan and claims that it did work with some Islamist groups. Off the record, some American officials have admitted that yes, of course they were picking sides.
For his part, Sherif maintains that while a few democracy promotion efforts had problems, it is unfair to say that complaints against IRI are representative of the field: “It’s just part of the smear campaign against civil society.” Despite the mass mobilization of people during the revolution, Egyptian civil society is on tenuous ground; legislation proposed in February threatens, essentially, to put civil society under state control. Moreover, many Egyptians complain that all the focus has been on Western aid to liberal groups, but little attention has been paid to funds from Gulf countries given to Islamist groups. There is much speculation that these funds dwarf in size what has gone to the liberal groups.
After spending two nights in jail (the rat’s room, he called it) upon his arrival, Sherif was released and is now staying with his uncle in Cairo. The trial has been postponed until July 4. Let’s hope for a fair trial and that Sherif, and more broadly civil society in Egypt, emerges vindicated.