The trial of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers in Egypt closes today, November 3, after more than eight months. The judge is expected to announce a verdict in December.
Forty-three employees both Egyptian and foreign are accused of operating NGOs without a license and receiving illegal foreign funding. Most of the foreign employees were flown out of the country in March, but one American, Robert Becker, remained and the Egyptian-American, Sherif Mansour, of Freedom House returned to Egypt this summer to stand trial.
Going forward, the trial will set the bar for the independence of civil society organizations in Egypt. If the defendants are convicted, it will give the government an even broader mandate to control and interfere in the work of these institutions.
Currently, NGOs face many obstacles in Egypt. Robert Becker was quoted in the Egypt Independent as saying,
‘You have civil society… walking on eggshells in this country right now. Despite the change in government, you still have NGOs that are being harassed,’ he adds, citing examples from earlier this year in which organizations working on seemingly innocuous causes, such as helping orphans, had funds blocked by the government.
There is, however, tentative optimism about the trial’s outcome. In Ahram Online, Bel Trew quotes a source close to the case as saying,
‘I think the motivations behind the case, are probably gone… It was a political masquerade, an argument between a former Egyptian government and the current US administration.’ The source expects the outcome to either exonerate the Egyptians and charge the foreigners who refused to face trial, or acquit the 43 on the grounds that their work had the assent of the government.
After the accused Americans left the country, the trial largely slipped from media coverage in the United States. Nonetheless, it exemplifies how, in Egypt, the United States finds itself hamstrung between national security prerogatives and the values it professes to stand for, like freedom of speech and assembly, and transparent and accountable government.
Civil society advocates in Egypt very much hope that the employees are acquitted. Unfortunately, however, a viscous media campaign that villainies the foreign funding of civil society in Egypt will likely reappear upon the verdict’s announcement. This puts Egypt’s judges in the unenviable position of having to rule against public opinion. What they decide will determine both the fate of Egypt’s civil society and reflect the extent of the judiciary’s independence.