Wall Street Journal: Egypt Set to Begin Highly Politicized Trial of Pro-democracy NGOs

February 25, 2012

Trial Will Test U.S.-Egypt Relations
The Wall Street Journal 

By Matt Bradley

CAIRO—At least 16 Americans are among 43 civil society workers who face trial Sunday over charges of illegal foreign funding in a highly politicized case that could affect the future of America's relationship with one of its strongest security partners in the Middle East.

But defendants and their lawyers say that basic and crucial questions about the nature of the charges remain shrouded in mystery only days before the case is set to begin. They add that the lingering obscurity exposes the accusations for what they are: Trumped-up charges meant to disparage pro-democracy activists by lumping them in with imagined foreign plots to undermine and divide Egypt.

"It's very simple. If you attack the international organizations and international aid program, this means that indirectly you will kill the domestic civil society," said Negad El-Borai, an attorney representing the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, two of the four American groups implicated in the case.

The 43 employees will be tried on charges of illegally operating unlicensed nongovernmental organizations and receiving foreign funds without notifying Egyptian authorities.

If convicted, the employees could face financial penalties and up to five years in jail. In a wrinkle that further raises the stakes, one of the accused is Sam LaHood, the head of the International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

A conviction could prompt Congress to cancel the military aid that Washington has sent to Cairo's armed forces since the 1980s. Last year, the military aid totaled $1.3 billion. That could send the Washington-Cairo relationship into a downward cycle, and imperil Egypt's peace treaty with Israel that has buttressed regional stability for decades.

Mr. Borai and some of the accused say the judicial proceedings have been marred by irregularities that are noteworthy even in the context of Egypt's typically shambolic bureaucracy.

Mr. Borai said that he has yet to receive formal written charges and prosecutors placed travel bans on the employees without actually alerting them.

During interrogations last year, some of the suspects said they were summoned for questioning as witnesses, only to be told upon arrival that they were in fact suspects.

Mr. Borai said the information blackout has complicated his ability to prepare for the case, and that he still doesn't know whether police plan to detain the accused workers once they arrive at court.

"Until the day we appear, we do not really know for sure whether we will be going home," said Nancy Okail, the head of the Cairo office of Freedom House, a U.S.-funded pro-democracy group that is implicated in the case.

Most of what Mr. Borai and the defendants understand about the case has been gleaned from media reports and a series of articles in the state-run media, which attribute the information to "security sources" who describe outlandish evidence pointing to a plot to break up Egypt along sectarian lines.

While the employees are charged with the rather innocuous crime of running organizations illegally, prominent members of Egypt's interim government and state press have publicly declared that the NGOs are engaged in espionage to foment chaos and unrest in Egypt.

A list of evidence published several weeks ago by the investigating judges included reams of material backing claims of a purported anti-Egyptian conspiracy, but little that would implicate the defendants in the crimes for which they are charged.

It included extensive testimony by Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga, whose original report sparked the investigation. Ms. Aboul Naga accused the U.S. organizations of thwarting "any attempt at Egypt's progress" and preventing the country from achieving "the position worthy of its regional and international prestige."

Those comments indicate "this is first and foremost a political trial and it's about bigger issues between the United States and Egypt rather than the legal questions that are going to be addressed in the trial," said one of the accused Americans, who declined to give his name.

The ministry of judiciary assigned a commission of two judges to prosecute the case, an unusual move in Egyptian legal history. The judges have eschewed standard protocol by making comments to the media during an ongoing investigation, including at a news conference last month. Defense attorneys say they plan to argue that the accused NGOs did nothing illegal and that the government ignored repeated applications for registration for as long as six years.

Egypt's law on civil-society organizations states that if the government doesn't respond to a request for registration from a group after 60 days, it is automatically registered. Less clear is whether such a stipulation applies to foreign organizations.