Financial Times: Egypt’s Trial of Pro-democracy NGOs Opens in Chaotic and Politically Charged Atmosphere
The trial of dozens of pro-democracy activists, including 16 Americans, began in Cairo on Sunday, in a case that has strained relations with Washington and threatened $1.5bn in US funding to Egypt more than a year after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak as president.
About a dozen defendants assembled in a cage attached to the courtroom as officers read out the charges against the Americans and 27 Egyptian and other foreign employees of the groups, which include the US-funded National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
They are formally accused of undermining Egypt’s stability and sovereignty by receiving funds from abroad and conducting training workshops without proper permits.
“This case is about an attempt to destroy the stability and security of the country,” said Mohammad Ghitani, one of the prosecutors presenting the government’s case.
“They transferred the money illegally. If they want to transfer money they have to transfer it through the government. They used funds to research the economy and the military of the country and send the information abroad.”
Only about a dozen defendants, all of them Egyptians, attended the hearing. All were allowed to go free until April 26 when the trial, adjourned to give officials time to translate documents, resumes.
The US and other foreign nationals, sheltering inside embassies or already abroad, say they have not received a formal summons ordering them to appear in court.
Under Mr Mubarak’s rule, independent NGOs rarely obtained official permission to operate and often registered as law offices or clinics.
Defence lawyers say the case, based on an article in the Egyptian constitution, is flawed and lacks evidence. “For this law to apply they had to have done many different things, which they are not accused of doing,” said Abdul Hadi al-Kurdi, a defence lawyer.
He added that although the organisations were technically operating outside the law, the defence team had documents proving they had received permission to operate from the foreign ministry. Other lawyers suggested the groups could be fined for operating without a licence rather than hauled before a judge to face national security charges.
An official close to the investigation said he was surprised by the paucity of the case against the defendants, which focused more on a decision by the US Congress last year to give aid money previously channelled through the central government directly to NGOs than on the groups’ activities. The groups’ programmes range from investigating human rights abuses to providing leaflet-making workshops for political parties to monitoring elections.
“The funding issue seems to be the basis for the misunderstanding,” the official said.
The chaotic and politically charged atmosphere in the court underscored the deep divisions in Egypt. Islamist activists outside the courtroom demanded the “execution of the Americans” and the release of the Muslim cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, who is imprisoned in the US for his alleged role in a 1993 terrorist attack in New York. Leftwing activists inside the court shouted “down with military rule”.
Many of those who led the uprising fear that Mubarak loyalists are playing on Egyptians’ xenophobia to undermine the country’s transition.