Ali began working for the National Democratic Institute six years ago as an accountant. After Mubarak fell two years ago, the institute expanded its operation ninefold. Ali moved to the political section and was in charge of educating centrist groups about what it means to work in a democratic country after a half-century of dictatorial rule. She met members of President Barack Obama’s election team and stopped socializing, spending all her time at work. She wanted to be a part of the new Egypt.
“On the ground we were incredibly warmly welcomed,” Ali said. Once the charges were filed, “Immediately we were called spies.”
Shortly after the raid, which lasted for six hours, Egyptian state security officials interrogated Ali. They accused her, she said, of threatening the Camp David peace accord with Israel and of worsening Egypt’s economic woes.
The U.S. workers also were charged, but after their names and addresses were made public, they moved into the U.S. Embassy. Ali faced her neighbors at home. She learned that the Americans left Egypt last March from a friend.
It’s uncertain how much longer the trial will go on. The next court date is March 6 and the trial is in closing arguments, but there’s no deadline for a verdict.
If convicted, Ali and her co-defendants face five years in prison. Under Egyptian law, the Americans who left will be convicted in absentia for not staying to face charges.
The National Democratic Institute, which began working here in 1998, has vowed to come back after the case is resolved. Ali and Halawa are skeptical, saying they spent months working alongside Egypt’s new political parties building trust, which has been broken. Trustworthy organizations don’t leave, they said.
Ali has become accustomed to appearing in the cage. She takes pictures inside. Sometimes her family slips her sweets between breaks. Sometimes, members of the political parties she once worked with come to court to support her. Between court sessions, she and her co-defendants are let out of the cage, but they can’t escape the trial.
Ali, who once was at the nexus of post-Mubarak Egypt, now watches from the sidelines, wishing she could pass on what she learned to Egypt’s newest political parties. She played no part in the presidential election last summer and the recent referendum on a new constitution, and she doesn’t expect to play a role in the upcoming parliamentary election. The realization brings tears to her eyes.
Still, she has no regrets about working with the National Democratic Institute.
“The work of the NDI is highly needed,” Ali said. “I believe politics changes lives for the better.”