“Captains Stay with Their Crew”
Most of the Americans charged by Egypt in the NGO affair have since left the country. But one, Robert Becker, decided to stay and face the music.
On Dec. 29, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy groups (domestic as well as foreign). The authorities charged 43 members of the groups with money laundering and running illegal organizations. In a special ruling, an Egyptian court subsequently allowed most of the accused foreigners to leave the country on bail. But one of the Americans, Robert Becker of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), opted to stay in Egypt and face the charges.
Though he remains free for the moment, he attended his most recent court hearing on April 10 with a bag containing clothes, toiletries, and a book to read in case the judge ordered his imprisonment. He and his Egyptian co-defendants, following the usual practice in such cases, listened to the proceedings from a cage in the courtroom. (The photo above shows him emerging from the cage after an earlier session in March.) Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy interviewed Becker in Cairo for Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy: What is your relationship with NDI now? They paid your bail of $330,000 but you still decided to stay back in Egypt and face the court.
Robert Becker: Since I appeared in court the only communication I’ve had from NDI and Washington was a letter informing me that, effective end of March, I no longer have a position anymore. I’m no longer getting paid. They’re still paying for the lawyer, but they’re not paying me. As far as I know, all 10 of the international employees who left are still getting paid.
FP: Why did you decide to stay?
RB: First, I’m not guilty. Second, a couple of the Egyptians who have been charged work directly for me. From the very beginning, I was very clear with my superiors that I wasn’t going to leave the country if there were still charges hanging over them. I work with these kids. Captains stay with their crew. It’s what leadership’s about. There’s not any circumstance where I would be comfortably living life in the U.S. while these kids were in a cage. At every turn, when there was pressure to leave, I weighed the options, and the best option for me was to stay with these guys. Some people call me brave, a lot of people call me stupid. But I sleep easy at night.
FP: What is the status of the Egyptians who are accused in the case?
RB: They’re facing similar charges to me and the others. It’s a tough trial. [It will be] hard for them to find employment because they’ve got charges hanging over them. It’s terrible for their families, and there is no clear indication how long it’s going to take.
Right now there are 15 staff members who have been charged: the four Egyptians and me. One of the things our Egyptian staffers were doing was helping me with Arabic, because I don’t speak it. We were also teaching them. It was a good job. A lot of our staff have degrees in public policy or political science, and it was an opportunity for them to learn as well. But they were support staff. They would help set up training, interpret conversations. I didn’t treat them as assistants. I also talked to them as students.
FP: You attended your last hearing on April 10. How did the last court proceedings go?
RB: We were led to believe they were going to open all the evidence. The offices of 17 organizations were raided. None of that evidence got sealed. It’s got to be truckloads: files, computers. The session was supposed to start at 10 a.m. but it didn’t convene until noon. There were about 45 minutes of civil complaints. One lawyer wants to charge us with espionage; another wants to bring a suit against the judges who intervened on the travel ban. Then there was a reading of the defendants and a reading of the charges. The judges went into recess, then came back almost two hours later. They announced that the next court date would be on April 18 [later postponed to June 5], and that it would be based on a series of documents requested by the prosecution but that the defense attorneys have never seen.
FP: Explain to me your own experience and the nature of your job as a political trainer who has advised thousands of activists, Islamists, and members of parliament during Egypt’s revolution?
RB: At one point there were over 120 new political parties being formed [in a period of two months]. You had a totally new system. So our role was to teach. I worked in politics for 20 years. I worked in multiparty democracy, a very similar set-up to here. So we offered a range of training: how do organize a campaign, how to communicate with voters door to door, advertise. For candidates we did media training: How you give a good interview, a good print interview, a good television interview. We offered this training day in, day out, for any party. My team and I taught three to four thousand political activists all over the country. Pretty much every time we held training we had a wide mix: Al Nour, the Freedom and Justice Party, Wafd, Free Egyptian Youth, Popular Alliance, the April 6 Movement.
FP: Did you contact them or did they contact you?
RB: A little bit of both. Every week we would announce what we were doing that week — say, a course on door-to-door campaigning — and they’d say, "We’re going to send three people, four people." Some of the parties requested more specific things, so we did a lot of one-on-one training for them.
Some people teach math, some people teach literature. All I can teach is how to run for office, how to run a campaign. And we did.
NDI has been here for six years, since 2005. We run a very transparent operation. We routinely met with the various ministries overseas. We had nothing to hide. In the six months that I was teaching political parties and political activists, I was very well-received. They were very eager to learn.
FP: And later you observed the elections?
RB: Yes, all three rounds. We filed reports on what we saw, more or less certifying that these were open and free and fair elections. Thirty million people voted, shattering the turnout at past elections. The run up to the election was a little bit disorganized, but I give the Egyptian voters credit: They were very well-organized, disciplined, patiently waiting in lines to cast their votes. Our international observers were members of parliament from other countries, former ministers from all over the world. We had Indonesians, Malaysians, European leaders, U.S. leaders — a very wide mix.
FP: Where were you when the security forces raided your offices?
RB: I was actually home that day. I kind of felt guilty about not being there, because my team was held at bay for five or six hours by guys with guns.
There was a round of interrogations in January, and then I was added to the no-fly list. Later I found out that I was one of the 43 charged. I decided right then and there that I wasn’t going to seek sanctuary — mainly because my teammates, the Egyptian staffers, couldn’t seek sanctuary. And I’ve never felt unsafe in Cairo.
I was interrogated once. They asked questions about USAID grant money and how the funding works. I honestly had no idea, since it wasn’t my job. My job was to teach.
They wanted to know how we contacted political parties and where we got the maps. We created maps that divided up the parliamentary election districts by color according to which round of the elections they were participating in. Most of the information came from the High Election Commission website.
FP: And what about the cash they found in your office during the raid? It was rumored to be a million Egyptian pounds.
RB: No, I don’t think it was that much. We had 25 to 30 international election witnesses flying in from around the world. The institute pays travel, lodging, and per diems. Most of that money was supposed to pay for food for people who had volunteered to come from Asia or Europe or the U.S. or Africa to spend four days in Egypt, participating in a historic election.
FP: What kind of problems do you face on the streets? Do people see you as a spy?
RB: Well, I’ve never had any problem on the street. I get a lot of praise for staying. I didn’t do this for pay. I don’t do a lot of interviews and stuff like that. I get a lot of credit for respecting the system and sticking with my guts. The street has quieted down about it. There hasn’t been a lot of chatter. I’m happy to talk to any Egyptian. Like I said, we were very transparent about what we did. I run into people quite often who came into classes that we taught and now have nothing but good things to say about what they learned.
I’m charged with managing an illegal NGO and illegally receiving foreign funds. I didn’t do either one.
FP: Have there been any threats against you? When you were leaving court the other day, there were people yelling at you, saying that you should be exchanged for Egyptians imprisoned in the U.S.
RB: They wanted to trade me for the Blind Sheikh [Omar Abdel Rahman]. But that’s not going to happen.
FP: And who protected you?
RB: It was actually a couple of members of the Al-Nour Party, people who had come to several of the trainings I had run. When I came out of the cage the first time they were right there and walked me out. We don’t agree on much politically but we respect each other. I gave them the same level of teaching and expertise I would give to any other party. I think it’s just a respect thing.
FP: How does this issue affect the future of NGOs in Egypt?
RB: There are a lot of things that are priorities in this country: jobs, combating poverty, better education, security. Transitions are difficult, they take time. You can’t pass every new law you need at once. NGOs, whether they be those that teach democracy or deal with human rights, or those that work at the local level to combat illiteracy or improve healthcare conditions, play a vital role. You don’t have to be a big, international group. Almost every time you read a report coming out of Syria about civilian casualties, those reports are usually coming from foreign NGOs that are there right in the middle of the combat, running hospitals and clinics, on the frontlines. It’s not the Syrian government that was reporting that 52 civilians were killed yesterday, it was a European NGO. I think this does hurt the future of non-government organizations. In a vibrant society you need NGOs to advocate for the people. If Egypt is going to move forward, it’s going to take time, but you’re going to need those citizen groups, whether their funding is foreign or local.
FP: The government seems to be very upset about the active role Egyptians played in your work.
RB: Were people in the government upset that some political parties sprang up and ran some good campaigns? I don’t know; I’ve never heard that. Our operation dealt with the Islamists, the nationalists, the ex-NDP parties, the liberals, the socialists.
I know that we sent Egyptians to observation missions to Nigeria to cover the elections last summer, and we have also embedded them in campaigns in other parts of the world so that they can see firsthand how political campaigns work.
NDI has operated in 120 countries around the world. We’ve done a lot of election observation. We draw from a wide array of people that we’ve dealt with in other countries.
FP: So why did you bring a bag with you to the cage?
RB: One of the defendants had lived in the UK, and there’s a saying that if you bring your umbrella, it never rains, so we all decided that if we packed a bag, we wouldn’t be detained overnight. And so a few days ago I packed a bag. A few change of clothes, towels, some toiletries and a book to read. I’m not a very superstitious person, but it’s worked so far.