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Charges against activists set stage for showdown Add to ...

The trial of 43 Western and Egyptian democracy activists has been adjourned for two months while diplomats and interested parties attempt to resolve the matter that has jeopardized U.S.-Egyptian relations and threatened the strategic balance in the region.

The charges, read out at great length in a state security court in the wealthy suburb of New Cairo, state that the employees of five international non-governmental organizations received money from foreign governments (the United States and Germany) and used it to intervene in the Egyptian political arena counter to the sovereignty and political interest of Egypt.

“This case is important for all Egyptians,” one of the investigating judges bellowed over the din in the courtroom jammed with family and supporters of the accused and dozens of journalists.

The U.S. government has repeatedly told Egypt that the charges are outrageous, and that the NGOs, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, were operating to assist Egyptians in their transition to democracy.

Members of the U.S. Congress, including Senator John McCain who flew to Cairo earlier this month, have threatened that if the American citizens are not acquitted it is highly unlikely that Congress will approve next year’s U.S. aid package to Egypt of $1.55-billion.

At the trial’s opening in a recently built courthouse in the centre of scores of three storey mansions that stretch for kilometres in all directions, only 14 defendants were present, locked inside a caged area to the bench’s left. All were Egyptian.

Several of the 29 foreign defendants had left Egypt prior to being charged and have not returned to face trial. The remaining dozen or so foreigners, including Sam LaHood, son of the U.S. Transportation Secretary, were barred from leaving the country. All of these defendants declined to appear in court yesterday.

“They weren’t served,” said a senior official of one of the organizations, referring to the lack of any warrant or other formal document charging the individuals and requiring them to appear. As such, the official added, they do not believe they are compelled to appear. Based on the absence of any criticism from the three-person panel of judges, the official may be right.

Indeed, most of the defendants only learned they were being charged by word of mouth or through the media. The two investigating judges, members of the state security system that remains largely unchanged since the Hosni Mubarak era that ended a year ago, held a press conference earlier this month at which they described the charges in colourful, anti-American language and named the accused.

Yehia Ghanem, deputy editor-in-chief of the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper and director of a recently created program for one of the NGOs, the International Center for Journalists, was in the defendants’ cage Sunday. He had learned he was being charged when his 11-year-old son called him, crying, and wanting to know if he really was a traitor.

“He asked if I had taken bribes from the Americans,” Mr. Ghanem recalled, “if I had really plotted against the government.”

“We hadn’t even started our program,” said Mr. Ghanem, a veteran of 18 years of reporting from war zones around the world. He was referring to plans for classes to coach mid-career Egyptian journalists hoping to cover real democratic elections. “I don’t see how they can charge us,” he added, “with something we haven’t even done.”

Hisham Kassem, founding publisher of the independent al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, described Mr. Ghanem as perhaps the most independent of all editors at the state-owned al-Ahram. He said Mr. Ghanem could well have fallen victim to those who wanted to deny him editorship of the big paper, an appointment set to be made this spring.

“There are a lot of people in high places who don’t like him,” Mr. Kassem said. Charged with high crimes, Mr. Ghanem’s name was apparently scratched from the short list of candidates and another person was named editor-in-chief on Thursday.

Nancy Okail, director of Freedom House’s operations in Egypt, also was in the cage Sunday. Beside her was a small bag she had packed “just in case I can’t go home,” she explained. Her husband, a fellow at Oxford, returned to Cairo Friday to be with the couple’s two-and-a-half-year-old twins, “just in case.”

The vivacious Dr. Okail, an Egyptian citizen, had returned last summer from studies in England to take the position at the American-funded NGO. She had previous experience working in Egypt with another NGO, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, and had seen how well-intentioned people had been locked up during the previous regime for political purposes.

For example, the former director of the centre, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for taking money from the European Union in order to monitor what passed for elections in the late 1990s.

“I thought things had changed,” Dr. Okail said.

Like Mr. Ghanem, Ms. Okail’s programs had yet to start. “My mission was only to establish the office and apply for a permit,” she said. “Then we were raided.”



While Egypt’s state security court is adjourned in the matter of the democracy advocates and whether they acted against Egyptian interests, the country’s new parliament has opened with plans to begin choosing the 100 people who will draft a new constitution on Saturday.

More than simply a plan for transition to democracy, the document must deal with two nettlesome topics: the role of the military in Egypt’s command structure and the place of Islam in the country’s laws.

With the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still acting as Egypt’s executive, the fear has been that the ruling generals would find a way to make sure the military retains a dominant behind-the-scenes political position along with its extensive economic empire – all without any civilian oversight.

While almost all political parties want to rein in the military, the reality is that they don’t have a lot of leverage. The military has run Egypt for six decades, albeit with civilian-looking former military officers as its front. Even with a real civilian in the president’s office, reining in the military would be limited by the civilians’ ability to persuade SCAF to make compromises.

On the matter of Islam, the fundamental dispute concerns the religion’s role as a basis for legislation. The current constitution states that Islam is Egypt’s state religion and that Islamic law, or sharia, is the main source of legislation.

Some religious leaders, including the fundamentalist Salafists who have the second largest bloc in parliament, argue that Islamic law should be the only source of legislation, a position strongly opposed by secular politicians and parties as well as by more moderate Muslims.

Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, with the largest bloc of seats (more than 40 per cent) has sought to allay people’s fears by saying it favours all-inclusive language – which may be something as simple as making Islamic law “the principal source” of legislation.

To that end, Mohammed Morsi, the party’s leader, has said that only 40 of the 100 committee members should be lawmakers drawn from parliament. The other 60, he said, should include women, Christian scholars, civil society leaders and experts from Al Azhar, the country’s leading Islamic institution.

With the country’s presidential elections now scheduled for early June, and the need to submit the new constitution to a national referendum before the elections, the committee doesn’t have much time to resolve these enigmatic matters.

- Patrick Martin, Cairo

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