CAIRO -- Rawda Ali, 30, doesn’t look like a criminal. Standing in the middle of the dingy cage that Egyptian defendants occupy during their trials, her head scarf is exceptionally fashionable, looking more like a Spanish wrap than traditional Islamic garb. She carries a designer bag. Her iPhone cover photo is of her flip-flops, one of the few things the security forces didn’t take when they raided the National Democratic Institute at gunpoint more than a year ago.
The charge she’s facing also isn’t typical. In a court that usually hosts drug dealers and murderers, she’s the unwitting defender of democracy promotion, charged with helping Western nonprofit organizations operate illegally here. While her Western colleagues fled months ago, she and 14 Egyptians may face years in jail for their efforts to promote democratic movements among Egypt’s nascent political parties.
Even without a conviction, she’s paid a heavy price for trying to promote American values in a revolutionary Egypt.
Ali cannot work. Fellow Egyptians have branded her a felon and American spy. A member of Parliament called for her execution. Her address and national identification number have been broadcast on state television.
With the American defendants gone, few outside Egypt pay any attention. She’s appeared in the cage 12 times, and the case against her has languished for more than a year. She’s known as defendant No. 27.
“You have been convincing people to trust democracy,” Ali said. “And you knew this was a risk. When something like this happens, you don’t leave.”
Hafsa Halawa, 26, is defendant No. 28. Like Ali, she’s frustrated by the length of the legal process and how the delay has put her life on hold. She’s frustrated that the American organization she worked for has left her fellow Egyptians and her behind to face these charges alone. The National Democratic Institute continues to pay her salary and the mounting legal fees, but only one American, Robert Becker, ever appears in the cage with them to defend a core American value, even though institute officials attend every hearing.
“I understand how they feel. It’s been frustrating and it’s been difficult to face the uncertainty,” for Egyptians and Westerners, said Leslie Campbell, senior institute associate and the regional director for Middle East and North Africa programs, who’s attended some of the sessions. “We continue to pay salaries and we pay legal costs, and we will continue to do so until this case is resolved. In addition, we continue to raise the trial and the issues of this case to the Obama administration and to members of Congress to encourage them to look for a resolution.”
Egyptian officials raided the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and several other organizations in December 2011, taking computers, money and files, and charging 29 Westerners and 14 Egyptians with working for an unregistered organization – even though Egypt had made it impossible to register. At the time, the raid was seen as the work of Fayza Aboul Naga, former President Hosni Mubarak’s minister of international cooperation, who, like Mubarak, saw the West’s promotion of civil society as promoting instability.