CAIRO - "Hey there, Number 28!" – A friend texts me using my new nickname. Indeed, for at least one day of every month that’s what I answer to; Number 28. That’s where I fall in the list of 43 defendants on trial for working in what the government deemed "illegal civil society organizations."
It’s a story those following Egypt have read many times: the armed raid on December 29, 2011, the trial, and it’s been all but too well documented that on March 1, 2012, the non-Egyptians (except for American Robert Becker) fled the country. Then, nothing.
There has been a sprinkling of stories in foreign media (thanks to Becker’s insistence on keeping this in the news) and a one-fourth page piece in the local papers the day following court sessions. But after March 1, everyone decided for themselves that this was over for them.
But it’s not over for me, Mohamed El Wakeel, Rawda Ali, Ahmed Shawky, Amgad Morsy, Bassem Fathy, Magdy Moharram, Essam Ali, Ahmed Zakaria, Yehia Ghanem, Ahmed Abdel Aziz, Mohamed Abdel Aziz and Eslam Mohamed.
We are the Egyptians left behind; potentially facing five years in prison. Although I’m a slightly special case: Born and raised in the UK, with an Egyptian father, I am a dual national by birthright. But when it comes to this case and this revolution, I am Egyptian; no more, no less. It’s the reason why I stayed, despite calls to leave, the reason why I joined the National Democratic Institute and why I continue to fight even though others wouldn’t.
The past year has been more than trying on all of us; our lives paused, our reputations slandered in the media. This Thursday, Jan. 10, we expect to hear defense closing statements, and then the judge should adjourn until next month when he’ll deliver his verdict. He should, but we never know.
I had actually never met any of the people from the other organizations before our first court session on February 26, 2012. We don’t really see one another from one session to the next. Cramped into a small cage, stifled by the heat and unable to hear, court is our only chance to catch up. We dutifully answer ‘present’ when our names are called, after which, most of us retreat to catch up on each other’s lives: Shawky recently got married, Wakeel is writing his MBA thesis, Yehia was made editor-in-chief of Dar Al-Hilal. Rawda, Christina and I have our little chairs, fanning ourselves and occasionally squealing when a small cockroach runs up the walls. At least two of us come prepared with bin liners or newspapers so the boys can sit on the floor, and there’s always a pen for us to mark the cage walls.
What matters most
As a lawyer, nothing matters more to me than the transparency and independence of the three powers of governance. I have frequently voiced my dismay at both the judiciary and the executive branch on issues pertaining directly to this case. Yet, our judges have been nothing but professional and fair in abiding by criminal court procedures. Yes, it has dragged on far too long, owing mostly to the political nature of this case ... and the cage is unbearable. But that’s the law. I don’t worry that there is an element of corruption, or that the decision will be based on factors that are not legal.
What I do worry about, is that this case has put civil society firmly back in its own cage, and no one is willing to speak up and fight for it. Ultimately, the government won. The foreign organizations have closed, and are no longer operating in Egypt. Local organizations which continue to work do so only in the most discreet fashion. Funding is hard, if not impossible, to come by.
The political influence over this case and the effect it has had on the ability for organizations to work has stifled and strained resources. It has created a stigma no one can shake off: working for an NGO is only seen as a threat to Egypt’s sovereignty. A friend of mine tried to obtain government approval to register an NGO; a government employee asked her: "Are you one of those April 6 kids?" – she wouldn’t give her the forms.
Ultimately this trial is not about the 43 defendants. It’s not about former minister Fayza Abouelnaga, the US government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the American organizations. It’s about democracy. You can’t have real democracy without impartial media and a flourishing civil society. They provide the checks and balances on a social level that legal directives cannot. More importantly, they keep politicians honest.
The new Constitution, specifically Article 51, appears to solve the registration problem. Accordingly, NGOs should be allowed to work freely without the strain of stringent laws governing their activity. Many would argue the pro-Muslim Brotherhood government has worked to reform civil society - and I would agree; however, probably more out of their own interests, since the issue of funding remains untouched. The article is also still subject to the problematic NGO Law no. 84 of 2002. Ultimately, that is the crux of our case; while we are innocent of the charges against us, it is the ambiguities of the law that have gotten us here.
However, I believe that the precarious situation civil society now finds itself in is fundamentally the fault of civil society itself. The clear lack of focus on this trial and lobbying by all human rights groups in Egypt to amend the laws is disappointing to me, to say the least. For Egypt, it is purely destructive.
Furthermore, the lack of discussion on a policy level by politicians, revolutionaries and opposition members is failing democracy and our revolution. Instead of shedding light on how Egypt is strangling its civil society, everyone is far too scared they will also be labeled "American spies."
There is far more to democracy than protesting in Tahrir, opposing a few presidential decrees and voting in the polls. This country can never move forward and educate its people if we do not force a very public and very political discussion on the issues that matter most to the very democracy we’re fighting for.
On Thursday we make our way back into court. We’ll catch up on all our news from the Christmas break and halfheartedly strain to hear our lawyers defend us. But deep down we’re all getting anxious as a verdict draws near. Not because we can’t survive the worst — we can and we will. But because we know no one is watching.
*Hafsa Halawa is a lawyer and a former member of the National Democratic Institute.