Inside the Cage

Like many, I had great hopes for change in Egypt after the revolution. I was excited to move back to Cairo as the new country director for Freedom House, an NGO that supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights across the globe. In August 2011, I packed up my life and my two-year-old twins and left England, where I had been living while working on my PhD, to return to my homeland. I was not naïve enough to believe that it would be an easy job. But I never imagined that just a few months later I would be in a cage.

If defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality! I found those words scribbled on the wall of my prisoner cage in the courtroom where I stood trial with fourteen other defendants in the case against foreign funding of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.

Like many, I had great hopes for change in Egypt after the revolution. I was excited to move back to Cairo as the new country director for Freedom House, an NGO that supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights across the globe. In August 2011, I packed up my life and my two-year-old twins and left England, where I had been living while working on my PhD, to return to my homeland. I was not naïve enough to believe that it would be an easy job. But I never imagined that just a few months later I would be in a cage.

I have always been committed to making Egypt a better place. I began my career in organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme. I also worked with Saad Eddin Ibrahim at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a pro-democracy organization, where my colleagues and I faced constant harassment by state security.  I even spent some time working at the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation in a sincere effort to reform the government from within. Ironically, it was this ministry, under Minister Fayza Abul Naga, that would later bring the case against NGOs that put me in that cage. It became clear to me that individual attempts for change in the face of Mubarak’s dictatorship and the corruption within his regime were futile.

When I returned to Egypt, I thought that the dynamics had changed. Yet soon afterwards, I was subjected to harassing phone calls by local authorities. Beginning in early December I was interrogated regularly by state prosecutors and threatened with prison if I publicly spoke about their investigation. The December 29 raids on NGOs came as a surprise to those who were not aware of our harassment and intimidation. I became one of forty-three NGO staff, including seventeen Americans, who were charged with operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license. The maximum sentence for these charges is five years in prison with hard labor.

Many aspects of this case represent a microcosm of the broader challenges Egypt has faced during its transition. The case was designed and orchestrated by the executive branch of government, a fact that casts doubt on judicial independence, which is itself critical for true democratic transition. Despite the potential peril, I was proud to be in that cage, standing up for our right to justice and with a firm belief in our cause and our innocence. Unfortunately, the world’s attention waned after the charged foreigners were allowed to leave Egypt in March. The pressure that we continue to face from authorities, far from lessening, has become much worse. The defendants who remain in Egypt feel very isolated and have no confidence that this trial, political in nature from the very beginning, will have a fair outcome.

The still-powerful state media has demonized the protesters in Tahrir Square, saying they are working against the country’s best interest. Similarly, it portrays us as spies in the service of a foreign agenda and petitions have been presented to the judges requesting the case be reframed to involve espionage, which could in theory lead to a life sentence or execution.

One of the most devastating developments was the decision by the United States to use a waiver to keep $1.3 billion in military funding flowing to Egypt without condition, despite the failure of the Egyptian authorities to exhibit the required progress towards a genuine transition to democracy. This has shown Egyptian authorities that, even if they ignore fundamental human rights, there will be no negative consequences in their relationship with Washington.

Thus Islamists who won elections for the now-disbanded parliament seem to care very little about our situation. They are engaged in a power struggle with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and choose their battles and prioritize their interests. Despite claiming to preserve the dignity of women, they did not raise a single voice to protest the fact that three of us women defendants were squashed in a thirty-seven-square-foot cage with more than twenty men, including accused arms traffickers and drug smugglers.

The only real support we receive in Egypt has been from other NGOs, which have issued strong statements condemning the crackdown on civil society. These are the same groups that maintain the selfless struggle to save the revolution and they may still face our fate. Those who remain unmentioned are our families and friends. Crammed on court benches, they sit quietly at every hearing, shedding tears and listening to calls for our execution during a process that has shown no sign of going in the right direction. All they wish is for our nightmare to be over.

We still hope justice will prevail in our case but we have all paid a high price already. I will never forget the sound of the iron doors of the courtroom cage being slammed behind us, making an example of those who dared to stand up for democracy.

Nancy Okail is the director of Freedom House Egypt, a non-governmental organization that supports human rights and open government. She can be followed on Twitter at @NancyGEO.

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