How an American NGO came to Cairo after the revolution hoping to build a democracy, and ended up alienating the very people it was supposed to help.
CAIRO, Egypt — In an Egyptian courtroom on a sunny summer morning, a judge declared that 43 employees of non-governmental organizations in Egypt, including more than a dozen Americans, were criminals. The ruling marked another blow for civil society here — and the end, for now, of U.S.-funded efforts to promote democracy in Egypt.
The guilty verdict also marks the culmination of a process that has soured the Egyptian staff of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Cairo — as well as one American staffer — toward their leadership in Washington. In multiple interviews, these staff described how NDI entered Egypt’s post-revolutionary period looking to promote transparency and lay the groundwork for an expanded role for civil society — and ended up accomplishing the exact opposite.
The NGO employees were convicted of working for and taking money from unregistered organizations. Robert Becker, an NDI political parties trainer who was fired for his refusal to leave Egypt, was sentenced to two years in prison. NDI’s four Egyptian staff, meanwhile, were handed one-year suspended sentences. The NDI staff who left the country and were tried in absentia, including country director Julie Hughes and senior program officer Lila Jaafar, received five-year terms in prison.
Following the verdict, NDI released a statement saying that it was "shocked and deeply distressed by the unjust conviction today of its employees," and vowed to appeal the decision. It added that those convicted were victims of a dispute between the U.S. and Egyptian governments, and that NDI had always been fully transparent in its activities in Egypt. NDI staff members in Washington were not immediately available for interviews on the details of the case, but those left behind in Egypt spoke before the verdict about their frustration with the support they have received from the organization.
It all started with a raid. Ten months after the uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, on Dec. 29, 2011, Egyptian police stormed the offices of 17 NGOs across Cairo as part of a criminal investigation into their funding. In the offices of NDI, a democracy-building organization affiliated with America’s Democratic Party, men armed with AK-47s burst in and demanded that the staff hang up their phones and wait in a conference room as the police seized their files and computers.
The raid took six hours. At one point, according to the NDI staff present, the phone of one of the officers blocking the door rang — the ringtone was set to No Doubt’s "Don’t Speak."
Egyptian officials — looking to make a clean break from Mubarak’s cozy relationship with the United States — were now speaking darkly about the true intentions of the NGOs. They had been angered by the decision of President Barack Obama’s administration to allocate $65 million to NGOs supporting the country’s transition to democracy, bypassing the government in Cairo. Fayza Aboul Naga, the minister of international cooperation, a holdover from the Mubarak era, released a report accusing the organizations of leading a U.S. effort to sabotage the revolution, and referred to one Washington-based NGO, Freedom House, of doing the work of the "Jewish lobby."
The anger soon reached fever pitch. "A member of parliament actually went on air… and he asked for the execution of the Egyptians [working for the NGOs]," said Rawda Ali, an Egyptian program assistant for NDI. "Because they are spies, you know, and how dare they work with foreigners?"
But still, the NDI leadership balked at taking their case to the Egyptian public, preferring to deal quietly with the Egyptian government, which at the time was led by a clique of high-ranking military officers. Hafsa Halawa, another NDI program assistant, recalls a conversation she had with Lila Jaafar, the senior program officer who left the country after being charged. "[I told her] this is not a joke. This is not going to be something you could make die politically," Halawa said. "She looked at me and said, ‘Oh my dear, you’re so young. You don’t understand how this works.’"
But in post-revolutionary Cairo, it was harder to cut the sort of backroom deal that was common in the Mubarak era. Public opinion mattered more — and it was turning sharply against the NGOs. On Jan. 21, 2012, Sam LaHood, the director of the International Republican Institute’s Egypt program and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, tried to board a flight at Cairo airport, only to be turned away. The NGOs soon learned that the government had slapped a travel ban on as many as 40 foreigners.
The Americans, with one notable exception, responded by taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy, where Egyptian police could not reach them. On Feb. 6, the Egyptian judicial ministry named the 43 NGO workers who would be charged with working for and receiving money from unregistered organizations.
According to the NDI’s Egyptian staff, the Americans’ retreat into the embassy marked the first fracture in their previously close ties with their colleagues. The discussions were no longer about how to fight the accusations or get NDI registered, but how to get the Americans out of the country. "We basically got cut out," said Halawa. "They went in the embassy and decided to go on a blackout. They didn’t call, they didn’t email."
But there was one remaining loose end: Becker, Halawa and Ali’s supervisor, refused to go into the U.S. Embassy, having made it known that he wouldn’t dodge the charges by fleeing the country. Becker is a longtime Democratic Party campaign operative who ran Gov. Bill Richardson’s 2008 presidential campaign in Iowa and Obama’s 2012 get-out-the-vote campaign in Milwaukee even as he was on trial — he has remained close to Richardson, who has offered him advice on how to approach the case for much of the past year.
The Egyptian staff under investigation said their initial contact with their NDI-appointed lawyer, Sarwat Abd El-Shahid, was solely focused on trying to convince them to convince Becker to leave.
"They said you’re absolutely fine, don’t worry about yourself. Nothing is going to happen to you guys — we need to protect the Americans," Halawa recounted. "We really believe that Robert staying in this country is detrimental to your case."
The NDI staff made the same argument directly to Becker — and also added an election-season twist geared to appeal to the longtime campaign operative. "One was a political argument — that this was beginning to hurt Barack Obama. That this was becoming his Iran hostage crisis," Becker said. "[But] first of all, I’m not the last American in Tehran. There’s not a bag over my head; there’s not an AK pointed at my temple."
The other case they made was that Becker’s departure would be beneficial for the Egyptians still on trial. "They had this working theory that if all the foreigners left, then the Egyptian government would go easy on the Egyptians. I asked if they had that in writing," Becker said. They hadn’t. He put forth an alternate theory: If the Americans subverted the Egyptian legal system to get out of the country, the government could retaliate against the Egyptian NDI staff.
As efforts to convince Becker to leave continued, the divisions between the Americans at the embassy and
those still on the outside increased. "I was new to the organization, but in the world I come from you don’t leave people behind," Becker said. "So for me, it was just unconscionable that a decision to leave would be the primary option. At no point was there any real discussion of protecting them from a prison term."
In the end — after the United States reportedly threatened to not only withhold millions in assistance to Egypt, but also obstruct a much-needed IMF loan — the Egyptian government lifted the travel ban on Feb. 29. The Americans were hustled from the embassy in vans, and departed Cairo in a U.S. government plane. Becker ended up turning his phone off, so as to better ignore the flood of pleas for him to get on the plane.
"The last argument I got from NDI, it was from Les Campbell [NDI’s Middle East director], was that I had to be cognizant if I showed up in court that it will make everyone who left look bad," Becker said. "Not my problem."
NDI’s Egyptian staff were never told of their colleagues’ imminent departure, and learned of it from Twitter.
"I had this SMS conversation for three hours with Lila [Jaafar]," Ali said, shortly before the Americans left: "[A]nd the conversation went like this: ‘Lila, is it true you are leaving?’ ‘No no, who told you this?!’"
The Americans’ hasty exit created a backlash in Cairo. It was a transparently political move: The presiding judges resigned over what they termed "uneasiness and embarrassment," presumably over executive-branch pressure to lift the travel ban, igniting a political storm over who let the Americans leave.
With the Americans’ departure, NDI ceased commenting publicly about the case. The last story related to the trial on their Egypt page was posted on the day of the Americans’ departure. "NDI can talk about how they care all they want, but … they haven’t uttered a word in over a year about this case," Becker said. "It was as if getting the foreigners out was the end of the mission."
Throughout the trial, NDI has continued to pay the salaries of the Egyptian staff on trial, and also pays their legal representation. However, it soon severed all ties with Becker. In a March 14, 2012, letter, NDI President Kenneth Wollack wrote Becker: "[W]e are not able to continue our program activities with political parties in Egypt," and as a result his position was eliminated. The letter made no mention of his refusal to leave the country, but promised NDI would still fund his legal expenses.
Becker said the U.S. Embassy in Cairo has not reached out to advise or help him after his refusal to leave the country; he has never been in contact with U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. His only remaining point of contact with NDI is Campbell. "Julie [Hughes] and I had pretty much stopped talking," he said bluntly. "There’s only so many times you can call me a ‘fucking idiot’ before I lose all respect."
Over the next 15 months, the trial continued in fits and starts, and tensions between the defendants and NDI continued. The staff in Egypt was angered this spring when they learned NDI had launched a training program for Egyptian political parties in Cyprus, circumventing the Cairo court’s order that they cease operations. In a bluntly worded email to Campbell, they pointed out that — should the training come to light — it could be used against them as evidence that NDI doesn’t respect Egyptian law. "[They’re] now doing exactly the illegal activity we’re charged with, and rumored to be doing. It doesn’t get more irresponsible than that," Halawa said.
In addition to handing down convictions against the defendants, the court ordered the closure of the offices of NDI, Freedom House, and three other groups. Meanwhile, a new draft law written by President Mohamed Morsy’s office could severely restrict the ability of foreign funded NGOs to work in Egypt. In some respects, the role of such organizations has already been curtailed: While tens of thousands of observers guaranteed that Egypt’s parliamentary election, the first after the revolution, was largely free and fair, international observers were largely absent from the latest referendum on the country’s new constitution.
In the case of NDI, however, its own leadership’s behavior over the course of the trial has weakened its support among those who once were its most fervent defenders.
"I went there because of the transparency, and because they told us about democracy, and the role of civil society, and that we have to stand up," said Ali. "Why as an Egyptian, would I fight if NDI doesn’t want to defend itself? I’m tired of this, I’m all the time asked to defend NDI when it doesn’t want to defend itself."