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EXCLUSIVE: Persecuted Pro-Democracy Activist Robert Becker On Egyptian Democracy

By Andrea Peterson  

"EXCLUSIVE: Persecuted Pro-Democracy Activist Robert Becker On Egyptian Democracy"

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(Credit: Foreign Policy)

On June 4th an Egyptian court convicted 43 nonprofit workers of illegally using foreign funds to create unrest in the country for training local activists on how to run political campaigns. Only one of the sixteen Americans, Robert Becker, remained in the country for the trial — only leaving the country after his conviction and two year jail sentence were announced.

Becker gave an exclusive interview to ThinkProgress from exile in Brussels on June 17th about the trial, the U.S. government reaction, and the future of Democracy on Egypt. Questions are bolded, with Becker’s responses following in plain formatting.

Just to get started here, could you give me a little bit of background about yourself and your history of involvement in international political campaigns?

Robert Becker: I’ve worked in the political arena for almost 25 years now. I started out managing political campaigns in the U.S., started working a little bit internationally about a decade ago. This is actually, this Egypt experience, was the first time I’ve worked in the nongovernmental sector. Prior to that it was all working for progressive campaigns around the U.S. and around the world.

And how did you get involved with Egypt?

I accepted an invitation from NDI (National Democratic Institute) in the spring of 2011 to do a two-week training seminar in Rwanda. They were teaching party members and stuff a campaign management school. So I took the trip, it was a pro-bono gig, but how else am I ever going to get to Rwanda in my life? While I was there I was approached about being a political party activist trainer in Cairo so I arrived in Egypt the 1st of June, 2011.

How would you describe the work that you were doing in Egypt?

NDI has been in Egypt for seven years. Post-Revolution, there was a big expansion within the organization, mainly to meet the needs of the country. You had the 18-Day Revolution sort of opening up a lot of political space and hundreds of new political movements and parties being formed. So when I hit the ground, I pretty much dove right in to just teaching new political activists how to run campaigns. You had people who six months earlier had never dreamed of running for parliament or working in the political sphere who were suddenly thrust into it. So June, July, August, September, all we did was teach party activists how to do grassroots organizing, how to communicate a message, how to raise money, sort of politics 101.

And then going into the parliamentary elections in November of 2011, NDI was one of several international organizations to be chosen by the Egyptian government to be international elections overseers. We were all issued, including myself, government ID badges with our photograph on it, barcode, that got us access to polling places throughout Egypt. And it was in the middle of our observation mission — the parliamentary election was done in three stages — that there was an armed commando cell raid of our office and 16 other NGOs throughout Egypt.

Can you tell me how you first found out about the charges being laid against you?

The raid was late December of 2011, so then going into January of 2012 there was — first of all, we were all put under a travel ban so we could not leave Egypt. I was interrogated in mid-January by state police, it was state police prosecutors that did the interrogations. And then in early February — I believe February 6th — of 2012, the prosecutors held a news conference and read off the names of 43 people who’d been charged with felony counts of sort of paperwork registration issues. So I found out, actually via Twitter, that I had been charged.

Can you tell me about your decision to stay in Egypt while the rest of the NDI crew left the country?

Yeah, it was actually a pretty easy decision for me. There were 43 people charged from five different organizations, four American NGOs and one German NGO. At ours, it was 15 people, four of which were Egyptian, two of which worked directly for me. So from the very beginning, I wasn’t going to leave the country if my staff was facing felony charges for working for us. So it was, you know, ‘How dare we come to a country like Egypt and preach democracy and human rights?’ We get hit with a couple of paperwork felonies and our instinct is to run and leave our employees behind. So that was my decision to stay. It was against the wishes of the organization and my reward was, five days after I appeared in court in March, I was fired.

Have you had any sort of involvement with NDI since then?

Very little. I was fired by Ken Wollack, the president, via email. The trial took almost a year and a half. NDI’s strategy, as well as the other American organizations, was to go silent, almost like, ‘If we hold our breath and close our eyes and plug our ears this’ll go away.’

It was a strategy I didn’t agree with, as evidenced by the many interviews I’ve given the last year and a half. I believe if you’re wrongfully accused, you gotta fight. Part of this case is, the case has been completely political from the beginning, and it’s been a battle of public opinion within Egyptian media and we chose not to engage there.

Who do you think in the Egyptian political media is sort of the most gung-ho about cracking down on pro-democracy activism and democracy promotion efforts?

State media. Mubarak may have fallen but the state-controlled media apparatus is still in place. This case has transcended a couple of regime changes where there’s a genuine fear of civil society in Egypt. Civil society was barely able to function under Mubarak; it got a little bit of space post-revolution but the SCAF (Supreme Council on Armed Forces), the army in the transition, decided, they’re the ones that launched the initial crackdown and now this thing has lingered a year into Muslim Brotherhood rule and they’re taking the same posture. To win the hearts and minds of people you’ve got to be in the arena, and it’s been mind-boggling to me that we would not enter the arena and advocate for what NGOs do, not just international NGOs, because this crackdown has been widespread, domestic NGOs. Now you’ve got the brotherhood pushing a new draft NGO law which is even more draconian than the one they had under Mubarak. Political NGOs are a small part of the sphere. The whole point of civil society is to pick up where government leaves off, and Egypt’s government leaves off a lot.

What do you think that NGO law is going to mean for the average Egyptian citizen who’s trying to build a new society after the revolutions?

It means that lots and lots of people aren’t even going to try to engage with that. There are a couple of problems with it. One is, in the latest draft there’s a committee that will oversee the activities of all NGOs and approve of their activities and that overworks a state security apparatus. So a citizens group that wants to, say, fight corruption in the delta region, fight government corruption, the government’s going to decide whether or not to allow that activity. I’m guessing they won’t. With state security taking over, my friend and colleague Heba Morayef with Human Rights Watch summarized it in a way that the West can understand it: It would be the equivalent of the CIA monitoring charities, deciding what can and can’t be done. Or MI-6 in the UK. So that’s one problem.

Two, fight restrictions on domestic and international funding, and you have a government that has an economy on the brink that has pretty much been traveling the world for the last year trying to secure loans, foreign funding, to help prop up the economy — actively pursuing the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan, readily accepts $1.3 billion in military aid — that is getting all hopped up over a couple million dollars in democracy assistance money. I mean, you can’t initiate a court case against foreign funding in the NGO sector for such a small amount of money and at the same time travel around the world looking for foreign money to save your economy. It doesn’t add up.

What did you think about Secretary Kerry’s statement about the NGO convictions?

Well, let’s just say I appreciate the fact that he’s deeply concerned and I appreciate the fact that fifty members of Congress sent a letter to President Morsi, fourteen Senators, and so my follow-up question is ‘Now what?’ This case has been going on for two years, the non-engagement strategy has clearly not worked. You’ve got U.S. citizens that were invited by the Egyptian government to be election monitors that have been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison. You’ve got Egyptians that took jobs working on behalf of United States NGOs that have been convicted one year, suspended, but a felony conviction in Egypt is death in the job market. You have some of us of various nationalities that are sort of now locked. And so my question is ‘What now?’

You’ve got four organizations in the U.S.: NDI, IRI (International Republican Institute), which are affiliated with the two major political parties, Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalism, that have basically gone silent. You go to their Facebook page, nothing, Twitter feed, nothing. Other than promoting the fact that their president’s testified before Congress, where’s the advocacy? NDI brags about working in 120 nations around the world, teaching civil society and political activists how to advocate for their rights. When exactly are they going to advocate for their own people? NDI has a board of directors that is a who’s who of the Democratic Party. There are six people on there that have been major contenders for the presidency of the United States. Where’s the high-level delegation in Cairo having a conversation to negotiate the overturning of these sentences?

Do you think that an appropriate response would be to call into question some of the military aid?

Too late. We already signed off on that, so that leverage is gone. We signed off on that last month. Look, here’s the problem: You have a court system that initiated this thing because of politics, that prosecuted this thing because of politics, that convicted us because of politics. You’ve got three sets of defendants now: You’ve got those who were found guilty in absentia. Legally, they’re done. The only way they can get a retrial is to come back to Egypt and enter an Egyptian prison. You’ve got eleven Egyptians that have a suspended felony conviction on them. Maybe they have a good shot at an appeal, maybe not. You’ve got five of us, myself included, with a two-year sentence.

In order for me to win, I’ve got to go step inside an Egyptian courtroom knowing that if my appeal is not overturned, off to prison I go. So the court system is out. The only opportunity to resolve this is through the presidency, and you can’t expect President Morsi to take action on this. As much as he’s done wrong in the year he’s been president, he didn’t start this, he inherited this. So news releases from Washington criticizing him are not helping the matter. I want to know, where’s the high-level delegation of Americans in Cairo having a conversation with him and his government about coming up with a way to resolve this? Anybody can send a press release from Washington criticizing Morsi? That doesn’t help.

So what do you think the next step will be for your Egyptian colleagues?

Well, one year sentences suspended for three years with some sort of vague ruling that they can’t do any similar activities. Basically, the courts have told them they cannot help move the country forward. So they may or may not be able to find jobs in other sectors, but their future in politics and civil society is done at least for the short term. For those of us that are not Egyptian, I’m sitting in Brussels today unclear where I can travel. I don’t know for sure if INTERPOL’s got a warrant on me or not.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got out of the country?

The verdict was read out at 11:30 a.m. It was initially very unclear what the verdict was because the judges did it behind a bank of about 30 microphones and it was sort of a garbled one-minute statement and then off they went. So I had about an hour where it was unclear whether I was sentenced to two years straight away or if it was suspended. When my lawyers finally figured it out, my top concern was the Egyptians. When I was one hundred percent sure that they were not in imminent danger of prison I decided it was time for me to get going because they would come looking for me as soon as that day. So I just went to the Cairo airport and boarded the first flight out, very simple. Flew to Rome, got inside the EU bubble and here I sit. I’m not at risk.

It sounds like you don’t have a very good idea of what’s next for you.

No, I don’t because my home is in Cairo, my business is based in Cairo — and it does not look like there’s going to be a court resolution any time soon. There’s been no, as far as I know, direct engagement with President Morsi to resolve this. He’s got bigger problems than this on his plate with the June 30th protests that are coming, the crisis with Ethiopia, the newly-declared jihad against Syria, so I don’t see this getting resolved any time soon. And it’s unfortunate because the only people that are suffering on this are the Egyptians. Never mind me, I’m a big boy, I can take care of myself, but the repercussions of this go way beyond just the American and the German NGOs involved and it affects civil society as a whole and if civil society cannot function, then it’s not a democracy. So we’re sort of back to square one on Egypt, and it’s unfortunate because tens of millions of Egyptians are going to suffer if this government collapses.

So it sounds like you don’t really have any sort of faith at all that Egyptian democracy is going in the right direction at this point in time.

No. They’ve had some pretty fair elections, and that’s an important part, but in a democracy — and democracies vary, right? The U.S. democracy is different from where I’m sitting in Belgium is different from where I was the other day in Italy — but any functioning democracy anywhere in the world is based on three fundamental freedoms: Freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression. All three of those freedoms are under attack now in Egypt, so the United States and the E.U. and other countries that are sort of diplomatically dealing with Egypt need to recognize the fact that if those freedoms don’t exist, it is not a democracy, so stop calling it that. We have to stop patting the Morsi administration on the back and start recognizing the fact that they are taking this country backwards, that some of those freedoms are even in worse shape than they were when Mubarak was in power.

Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss?

I’d just like to know when the four organizations are going to actually start practicing what they preach and advocating for their citizens, for their employees. You’ve got four organizations that, collectively, between Facebook and Twitter have 136,000 followers. They have not been doing a thing. What is the point of being an advocacy organization if you’re not going to fight for your own people? If I had 136,000 followers, I’d be asking them to send a letter to President Morsi asking for a pardon. If I had a board of directors that included six people who ran for the presidency of the United States, I’d be sending a delegation to Cairo to have a conversation.

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