CAIRO — The defendants in a criminal case against U.S.-funded pro-democracy workers are due in a Cairo court Tuesday, a hearing expected to coincide with the Egyptian parliament’s first broad review of a draft law that would maintain stringent restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign money.
Tuesday’s hearing could once again thrust into the spotlight a case that brought Egypt’s relationship with the United States to a precarious low this spring.
The U.S. government paid millions of dollars to get Cairo to lift travel bans imposed on all foreign staff members of the NGOs, enabling the workers to leave Egypt in March.
But two Americans and a German say they will show up in court Tuesday, two of them for the first time since the case began. In interviews, the three talked about why they rejected the course of action preferred by their employers and the U.S. government, which favored a quick negotiated resolution rather than the spectacle of foreign pro-democracy workers standing trial in Cairo.
Instead, the workers said they would stand by their Egyptian colleagues and face up to what they called unfair charges. At least 16 of the 43 defendants are Americans, and those who left Egypt are being tried in absentia. But the bulk of those facing charges are Egyptians.
Sherif Mansour, an Egyptian American who last week resigned from his Washington job with Freedom House, traveled to Cairo on Sunday night intending to surrender to authorities. He was detained at the Cairo airport and spent the night in jail, according to other defendants in the case.
Mansour, 32, said he disagreed with what he described as Washington’s passive policy on the case. “They were hoping that if we all kept a low profile, it would fizzle away,” he said before his arrival in Cairo. “But that’s not acceptable for me. This is a battle that should be fought.”
Mansour, who became a U.S. citizen a few months ago, would be one of two Americans inside a courtroom prosecution cage.
Robert Becker, 43, a former employee of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, chose to stay in Cairo when six Americans subjected to the travel ban were ferried aboard a U.S.-chartered plane to Cyprus in early March.
“The whole idea of being safely ensconced in the U.S. while people who worked directly for me were on trial was unfathomable,” he said in a recent interview.
The investigation of the work of foreign-funded pro-democracy groups began in the fall after Egypt’s authorities demanded greater oversight of how U.S. aid money was being spent. Egyptian officials said the groups were working illegally because they had not been accredited. The organizations under scrutiny included the International Republican Institute, which was led in Cairo by Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The Americans said that they had been unsuccessful in getting accreditation but that the groups were doing valuable, nonpartisan political training and urged authorities to dismiss the charges.
Raids at the groups’ offices and the travel bans angered members of the U.S. Congress and prompted threats that the $1.5 billion that Egypt gets in annual aid from Washington could be withheld. Fearing that the American workers could be taken into custody, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo took the unusual step of sheltering several inside the diplomatic compound.
Becker said U.S. officials urged him to leave Egypt.
“I responded: What part of sticking with my people don’t you understand?” Becker said. He said he was fired shortly after he appeared in court in March.
NDI declined to comment on personnel issues. The group has continued to pay its Egyptian employees and the lawyers representing all NDI defendants.
British Egyptian Hafsa Halawa, 26, Becker’s colleague, said the group’s Egyptian workers felt let down by the United States and their former employers. As the Americans left Cairo, she said, the unmistakable message was that the Egyptian government had won the standoff and that civil society activists left behind would have to fend for themselves.
“The office is closed, the staff got laid off, and they got what they wanted: for us to stop working,” she said.
Mansour said the groups were playing a vital role in building up political parties and training a wide range of politicians as Egypt was gearing up for landmark parliamentary and presidential elections. The outcome of last month’s first round of presidential voting, which led to a runoff between a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood and a former prime minister assumed to be the military’s contender, showed that the two camps with established political machines had a disproportionate advantage, Mansour said.
“We’re having to choose between the autocrats and the theocrats,” he said. “Why? There wasn’t a real third option.”
Christina Baade, a 46-year-old German married to an Egyptian, said she left with the Americans in March hoping that the crisis would blow over. But she returned a month ago, fearing that a judgment in absentia could preclude her from returning to the country where she is raising her two daughters.
“I came to the conclusion that I had to go face the judges and see it for myself,” said Baade, who works for Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a pro-democracy group connected to a German political party.
The Cairo government and many Egyptians are suspicious of foreign-funded organizations, especially U.S.-backed groups, which the government has accused of operating secretly to further American interests in Egypt.
Egyptians involved in civil society groups had hoped that the country’s new parliament would swiftly replace the repressive regulations for NGOs. A draft law finalized May 8 marks an improvement from the rules that were sporadically enforced during Hosni Mubarak’s reign, according to an analysis by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
But the Washington-based group said some of its provisions remain problematic. Those include a requirement that NGOs get approval before accepting foreign funding, a cumbersome registration process and broad powers for the government to easily dissolve groups deemed as threatening “national security” or undermining “public order and morals.”
Nancy Okail, the Egypt director of Freedom House and a defendant in the case, said the message was unmistakable and disappointing.
“The bottom line is they want to keep a tight grip over foreign-funded NGOs,” she said.