Beirut, Lebanon – In February, in the Cairo courtroom where the democracy advocates were being held in the same kind of cage as Anwar Sadat’s killers, Nancy Okail, Defendant No. 34, stood out. It was not just her beauty. The Egyptian woman who leads the Cairo office of the U.S.-based Freedom House was the one in the cage reading George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.” It was her gesture of resistance to the Egyptian military regime that had put on trial democracy advocates who dared to partner with Egyptians in promoting democracy in a country that supposedly just had a democratic revolution. Apparently, Okail didn’t have her copy of Orwell’s “1984” or “Animal Farm” — classics on authoritarianism — because this fraudulent show trial could easily have been a chapter in either one.
While seven American democracy workers who were slated to be tried with Okail had been allowed to leave the country, she and dozens of her Egyptian colleagues still face prosecution at a trial re-set for June. She is deeply — and rightly — worried that the U.S., now that it has gotten its citizens out by paying a $5 million bail, will forget about the Egyptian democracy workers.
After the American workers were released, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved $1.3 billion in military aid to the Egyptian Army in an effort to keep relations on an even keel. It didn’t. The Egyptian authorities responded by asking Interpol “to issue worldwide notices for the arrest of 15 nongovernmental workers — 12 of them Americans — accused of illegally operating pro-democracy programs and stirring unrest,” The National Journal reported. It’s sad to see Egypt’s ruling military council — which has done good things to shepherd Egypt’s democratization process — get maneuvered by remnants of the old regime into this xenophobic attack on groups whose only crime was supporting Egyptian efforts to monitor elections and form parties.
When the U.S. decides to just give away the military aid to Egypt without considering the consequences on us it sends a message that the West and the U.S. don’t care about democracy and human rights.
“When the U.S. decides to just give away the military aid to Egypt without considering the consequences on us,” Okail told me, “it sends a message that the West and the U.S. don’t care about democracy and human rights. They just care about strategic stability. We, the defendants, felt betrayed. The battle we fight standing in that cage, hearing calls for our execution, is not a battle for our freedom but a battle for liberating Egyptian civil society.”
But it isn’t only liberals who are having a hard time. Last Sunday, Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated Parliament demanded that the country’s senior Muslim cleric — the state-appointed grand mufti, Ali Gomaa — resign because he had visited East Jerusalem to pray in the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Gomaa said it was a personal visit, arranged by Jordan. Nevertheless, Reuters reported that the Egyptian parliamentary committee responsible for religious affairs called on Gomaa to step down, issuing a statement that the “brutal enemy” — Israel — controls Jerusalem’s “entries, exits, mosques and churches. Going in enforces occupation and bestows upon it legitimacy. It also represents a sign of normalization with the Zionist entity that is popularly rejected.”
What does it tell us that a country that had a democratic revolution is jailing democracy workers and a country that has a peace treaty with Israel wants to sack its mufti for even praying in a Jerusalem mosque?
It tells us that the Arab awakening in Egypt did not blow the lid off. It blew the lid up. But the lid — the old regime and intelligence services — is still around. By blowing the lid up, though, it created space for the young people who actually sparked the revolution there to take to the streets and for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, and even a few liberals, to get elected to Parliament. But now you have a six-way struggle for power in Egypt: the Army, the Islamists, the youths, the liberals, the old regime’s loyalists and the business community.
This is going to take a long time to sort out. America’s job is to let whoever wins know that their relations with us will depend on their commitment to free elections, an independent judiciary, free press, open trade, religious pluralism and the rule of law.
It also tells us that anyone who thinks that the Arab Spring proves that Arabs don’t care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore is fooling themselves. Resolving it is now more important because the Arab street has a bigger say in politics than ever — and the issue still resonates. America has so much more credibility with Arabs in promoting democracy when it is also seen as promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Finally, it tells us that — while it is understandable that the Obama team would initially take a low-key approach to defending democracy workers in Egypt — Okail is right: There is such a thing as too low-key. If we don’t stand up firmly for our own values, then what will happen to those Egyptians who do? We must respect Egypt’s sovereignty and dignity, but we have no reason to respect a contrived witch hunt against democracy workers trying to hold their own government accountable. We bit our tongue with Hosni Mubarak, and how did that end? Without vibrant civil society groups, there will never be a sustainable democratic transition in Egypt.Top