On Dec. 29, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy groups (domestic as well as foreign). The authorities charged 43 members of the groups with money laundering and running illegal organizations. In a special ruling, an Egyptian court subsequently allowed most of the accused foreigners to leave the country on bail. But one of the Americans, Robert Becker of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), opted to stay in Egypt and face the charges.
Though he remains free for the moment, he attended his most recent court hearing on April 10 with a bag containing clothes, toiletries, and a book to read in case the judge ordered his imprisonment. He and his Egyptian co-defendants, following the usual practice in such cases, listened to the proceedings from a cage in the courtroom. (The photo above shows him emerging from the cage after an earlier session in March.) Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy interviewed Becker in Cairo for Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy: What is your relationship with NDI now? They paid your bail of $330,000 but you still decided to stay back in Egypt and face the court.
Robert Becker: Since I appeared in court the only communication I've had from NDI and Washington was a letter informing me that, effective end of March, I no longer have a position anymore. I'm no longer getting paid. They're still paying for the lawyer, but they're not paying me. As far as I know, all 10 of the international employees who left are still getting paid.
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FP: Why did you decide to stay?
RB: First, I'm not guilty. Second, a couple of the Egyptians who have been charged work directly for me. From the very beginning, I was very clear with my superiors that I wasn't going to leave the country if there were still charges hanging over them. I work with these kids. Captains stay with their crew. It's what leadership's about. There's not any circumstance where I would be comfortably living life in the U.S. while these kids were in a cage. At every turn, when there was pressure to leave, I weighed the options, and the best option for me was to stay with these guys. Some people call me brave, a lot of people call me stupid. But I sleep easy at night.
FP: What is the status of the Egyptians who are accused in the case?
RB: They're facing similar charges to me and the others. It's a tough trial. [It will be] hard for them to find employment because they've got charges hanging over them. It's terrible for their families, and there is no clear indication how long it's going to take.
Right now there are 15 staff members who have been charged: the four Egyptians and me. One of the things our Egyptian staffers were doing was helping me with Arabic, because I don't speak it. We were also teaching them. It was a good job. A lot of our staff have degrees in public policy or political science, and it was an opportunity for them to learn as well. But they were support staff. They would help set up training, interpret conversations. I didn't treat them as assistants. I also talked to them as students.