In February, in the Cairo courtroom where 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 US-based Freedom House NGO 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 partner with Egyptians to promote democracy in a country that had supposedly just had a democratic revolution. Apparently, Okail did not 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 US democracy workers who were slated to be tried with Okail have 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 US, now that it has gotten its citizens out by paying a US$5 million bail, will forget about the Egyptian democracy workers.
After the US workers were released, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton approved US$1.3 billion in military aid to the Egyptian army, in an effort to keep relations on an even keel. It did not.
The Egyptian authorities responded by asking Interpol “to issue worldwide notices for the arrests of 15 non-governmental workers — 12 of them US citizens — accused of illegally operating pro-democracy programs and stirring unrest,” the National Journal reported.
It is 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 US decides to just give away the military aid to Egypt without considering the consequences on us,” Okail said, “it sends a message that the West and the US 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.”
It is not only liberals who are having a hard time. Last week on Sunday, Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated Parliament demanded that the country’s senior Muslim cleric — 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 say when a country that had a democratic revolution is jailing democracy workers and even though it has a peace treaty with Israel wants to sack its mufti for praying in a Jerusalem mosque?
It shows that the Arab awakening in Egypt did not blow the lid off, it blew the lid up. However, the lid — the old regime and intelligence services — is still around. Blowing the lid up, though, created space for the young people who sparked the revolution to take to the streets and for the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and even a few liberals, to get elected to parliament.
However, now there is a six-way struggle for power in Egypt between 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. The US’ 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 shows that anyone who thinks the Arab Spring proved that Arabs do not care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore is fooling themselves. Resolving it is now even more important because the Arab streets have a bigger say in politics now than ever. The US has much more credibility with Arabs in promoting democracy when it is also seen as promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Finally, it shows 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 the US does not stand up firmly for its own values, then what will happen to those Egyptians who do? The US must respect Egypt’s sovereignty and dignity, but it has no reason to respect a witch hunt against democracy workers trying to hold their own government accountable. The US bit its tongue with Hosni Mubarak and how did that end?
Without vibrant civil society groups, there will never be a sustainable democratic transition in Egypt.
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