Rebel Economy spoke to Robert Becker, a political organiser based in Cairo who was charged in last year’s NGO crackdown. He is a Senior Partner at WellsBecker, a global communications firm based in New York and Cairo. He blogs here.
- 1) You are one of 43 Egyptian and Foreign NGO workers who has been on trial for more than a year, accused of receiving foreign funds illegally. At what stage has the trial reached, and what has been your experience with the Egyptian judicial system?
“Delayed” would be the word. It has been well over a year since the synchronized, commando-style raid was conducted against 17 pro-democracy and human rights NGO offices throughout Egypt. The trial is due to resume on March 6th and this will be the fourth attempt to complete closing arguments.
Throughout the year, I have found the judges to be very straightforward and by-the-book. Personally, I think there should be reforms made to the “civil” lawyers provision allowing them to make (shout) arguments above and beyond that of the prosecutors. Berating the judges for weeks on end, demanding our case be leveraged with the United States for the release of the “Blind Sheikh”, Omar Abdel-Rahman, has added a great deal of time to our case, not withstanding the argument’s irrelevance.
Also, the accused should be afforded a few basic rights, like the ability to hear the proceedings, as the acoustics inside the cage are awful.
Finally, clean up! I have a great amount of respect for the rule-of-law, but when the courtrooms are absolutely filthy (as well as practically every government building) it is hard to maintain that respect. Simply mandating government offices be cleaned regularly will restore a large degree of confidence and respect between the people and their government.
- 2) You were fired from your position at the US-headquartered National Democratic Institute when Egypt’s security services raided NDI’s offices along with dozens of other NGOs. What has been the US response to your arrest?
I was fired by NDI on March 14, 2012, approximately one week after appearing in court in response to my legal summons to appear and in accordance to my bail arrangement (LE 2,000,000). Two weeks prior, I refused an order by NDI to board a private US government plane and flee Egypt and the charges.
To date, one year on, the US government has maintained a virtual strategy of silence and, other than NDI paying for our legal defense, we receive no other government support regarding the trial.
- 3) You had a choice to leave Egypt, why didn’t you?
Loyalty. Several of the Egyptians charged in this case worked directly for me. Their only “crime” was taking a good job with a well-established and legal organisation in a tough economy, aimed at improving democratic institutions and civil society in post-Mubarak Egypt.
After two decades working in the trenches of democracy around the world, I have learned that I am only as good as the people I work with. There was no question I had to stay with my co-workers, as they were family to me and loyalty and solidarity matters in life.
When you advocate and teach democracy and human rights, you also stay and fight when faced with “paperwork felonies”, clearly motivated by politics, and aimed at denying Egyptians the very rights you fight for. Staying and fighting these charges side-by-side with Rawda, Hafsa, Mohamed, Amgad and the other Egyptians charged, was the easiest decision I ever made.
- 4) Is the new NGO law that is being drafted by government adequate to replace the old law in force?
As the draft stands today, it is far worse. If this draft is passed democracy will cease to exist. In a democracy there are three pillars of power: those who have it (government); those who want it (political forces); and those who give it (the people).
If the people of Egypt are denied the right to organise, speak out and hold government accountable, then democracy fails. What the government draft misunderstands badly is the definition of an NGO: Nongovernmental Organisation… emphasis on the word non. Citizens should be able to, without fear of government persecution, organize themselves to hold their government accountable. If government can control NGOs, how then can a citizens group in Faiyum fight local government corruption? Or a national NGO advocate against police brutality or torture?
Egypt should scrap this draft all together and start with a premise that they should not fear their own citizens and institute a 21st century NGO law that encourages the right to free assembly and citizen participation in government.
- 5) At a time when some Egyptians are wary of involvement from overseas organisations, what is the value of foreign NGOs in the country?
Well, for starters I would ask, what is the International Monetary Fund? Could it be classified as a nongovernmental organization funded by numerous foreign governments? Egypt has been in long, critical negotiations with the IMF to allow for a large “intervention” from a foreign-funded organization worth $4.8 billion.
Bottom-line: What message does Egypt send when it actively seeks foreign investment to help the economy and simultaneously brags about denying close to LE100 million last year in foreign NGO funding?
Denying (and now trying to outright prohibit) foreign NGO funding cuts off access to much needed capital for citizen groups throughout Egypt who are working in various economic and societal fields like historical preservation (vital for tourism), microfinance (fueling small business growth), job training, education, technology, etc. It is a contradicting message from the Egyptian government that hurts Egypt’s fragile economy by hurting investor confidence.
Egypt’s economy has a long way to go recovering from three decades of neglect. It should welcome foreign investments from large-scale interventions to restore a crumbling infrastructure (creating jobs) to small infusions of capital to teach adult literacy in Beni Suef (also creating jobs).
Foreign NGOs can help fuel our economic recovery, teach valuable expertise, and help build solid democratic institutions. Egypt should welcome them.