REPORTING FROM CAIRO — A lone American appeared in a Cairo courtroom Thursday in a criminal case against civil society workers that has shaken Egypt’s new political establishment and strained relations between the U.S. and one of its closest Arab allies.
Robert Becker, an employee of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), stood in the defendants’ cage with 14 Egyptians, all charged with working for unlicensed nongovernmental organizations that received illegal foreign funding.
Becker is one of 16 Americans and 27 others facing charges in the case. Six of the Americans left Egypt last week and returned to the U.S. after $330,000 in bail was paid for each and their travel restrictions were lifted. The nine other U.S. nationals had previously left the country.
Becker’s bail also was posted last week, but he chose to stay and face trial. He and the other defendants could receive up to five years in prison each if convicted.
The charges center on a number of groups, including the U.S-backed NDI, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. Egyptian authorities claimed the defendants threatened Egypt’s sovereignty by stirring unrest while attempting to advance U.S. and Israeli interests.
The nonprofit groups, which were working without licenses after years of applying but never receiving them, have denied meddling in Egypt’s political affairs. Much of their work dealt with democracy and election programs.
The case has infuriated many members of Congress, some of whom called for Washington to cut $1.3 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military. Tensions cooled when the six Americans — including Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — left Egypt last week.
The legal drama has also upset Egyptian politics. Three judges resigned from the case last week amid suggestions that they were pressured by the nation’s ruling military council to end the matter to avoid further damage to U.S.-Egypt relations. That was followed by a travel ban being lifted on the Americans, allowing them to fly out of the country.
A new judge has ordered the Americans who left to return to face trial, a prospect not likely to happen.
Many Egyptians admire Becker for staying behind. Reuters quoted one of his supporters, who asked not to be named, as saying: “Mr. Becker is a man we all respect. I was one of the party members he trained. He taught us how to campaign during elections and what democratic governance means. He is a good man and respects Egyptians.”
The trial was postponed until April 10.