An interview with Robert Becker, the American NGO worker detained in Egypt

October 16, 2013

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

This June, an Egyptian court convicted 43 nonprofit workers of seeking to foment unrest by promoting political development in Egypt on behalf of foreign NGOs. Robert Becker was the only one of the 16 Americans charged in the case to remain in Egypt to face trial, a show of solidarity with the Egyptian citizens also being tried. The state campaign against the NGO workers was widely seen as politically motivated. Becker left Egypt after the court announced his conviction and a two-year jail sentence.

I spoke to Becker about his experiences in Egypt and current U.S. policies toward the country. The Obama administration recently announced that the United States will cut a substantial portion of the $1.2 billion in annual military aid it has sent Egypt for decades. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. (Full disclosure: I briefly overlapped with Becker on the staff of a political campaign in 2010.)

Washington Post: What was your experience in Egypt?

Robert Becker: I was there from the mid part of 2011 through the parliamentary elections and following the raid [on our office] and the charges through a year and half of court appearances. I kind of got a front row seat for the SCAF [Egyptian military chiefs] rule and then the entirety of the Muslim Brotherhood rule before I had to leave the country.

Can you detail the case against you?

We were charged with managing an illegal NGO and illegally receiving foreign funds -- neither of which were true because according to Egyptian law we had been in full compliance. Now the charges against us and the rhetoric were completely different. The rhetoric was that we were trying to divide Egypt, that we were spies. 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.

You mentioned there was a lot of rhetoric aimed toward yourself and others charged in this case -- do you think that was indicative of anti-American sentiment from those in charge?

Yeah, the state media is still very, very much in place. The Maspero building, which is also sort of the name of the state media in its entirety, is an enormous operation. In fact, somebody told me one time there were more people employed by state media in Egypt than in the rest of Africa combined. It’s a propaganda machine that has survived from Mubarak to SCAF to Morsi and is still in place today.

It was the state that was pushing it -- but it wasn’t necessarily anti-American, it was more anti-civil society. You had a time period where, less than a year removed from the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, you had an army in charge, society was supposed to be open and moving towards democracy and the government didn’t like human rights groups speaking out or NGOs that were holding them to account.

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.

Can you describe your day-to-day life in Egypt as an American NGO worker and election observer before the raids?

Busy. I got there in June of 2011, we were four months removed from a revolution which really opened up the political space. At one point we were tracking well over 100 parties in formation -- so on the political party training, we had a full house multiple times a day, every single afternoon and evening, of mostly young Egyptians who six months prior had never dreamed they would be running for parliament or working in a political atmosphere, so we were teaching them the basics of how to run an organization and run a campaign.

Once the elections started, we were all observers, and it was a three-part, six-week-long process that was very draining and grueling. A lot of work. Very rarely until the raid and the subsequent charges did we get any sort of anti-American backlash. In fact, I recall vividly, around one of the parliamentary elections, Egyptians thanking us -- seeing our government-issued credentials -- and thanking us for being there and making sure the process was free and fair because that was the first time in Egypt’s long history there had a been a free and fair election.

What are your thoughts on the government of President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in a coup this July?

I believe Morsi was elected in a free and fair election -- it was a very close race. In round one, he got 24 percent of the vote, so you had three out of four Egyptians voting against the Muslim Brotherhood. And then it was narrowed to two choices, between him and the former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, but I think he won it fair and square. But I also think that’s also where the Muslim Brotherhood version of democracy stopped. Democracy is more than just one election. The pillars of a democracy -- freedom of expression, association and assembly -- were all under assault. His one-year rule was about as anti-democratic as you can get, especially in December of 2012 when he declared himself above the law, above the courts, in his constitutional decree. They used Muslim Brotherhood activists to besiege the courts to keep the Supreme Court from meeting, he declared himself the sole legislator -- it was a very bad period of total dictatorship and not democratic at all. And that’s where I think the world let Egypt down because we did not step in to speak to democratic principles and values.

And do you have friends on the ground still in Egypt? Do you know how they feel about things now, after the coup?

Frustrated, scared, happy -- you get a lot of mixed emotions. I do talk to Egyptians pretty much every day. I do think there is a sense of “we are going to do this over, we’re going to do it right, and we’re going to do it the Egyptian way.” The government is saying the right things about moving towards democracy, and I think the Egyptian people as a whole are taking them at their word.

But I was also there for the first time SCAF ruled and it was also not a democratic period. During their first rule you had 12,000 Egyptians detained and imprisoned by military trials and you had an assault on civil society with our case. There’s words and there’s actions -- so far some of the actions have been good, but a lot of them have been bad. It’s going to take a long time, and I think that’s what the rest of the world needs to understand. Democracy is not perfect, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes time.

Is there anything else about the current situation you’d like to comment on?

Just to repeat that 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.

I could go on for a while, but 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.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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