Egyptian woman faces prosecution on Sunday after crackdown on NGOs (WASHINGTON POST) By Leila Fadel CAIRO, EGYPT 02/25/12)
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CAIRO — Nancy Okail, 34, expects to stand in a prosecution cage in a
Cairo courtroom on Sunday. She doesn’t know if she’ll be taken from
there to a jail cell, or if she’ll return home to her 2-year-old
twins. But she does know that she does not want to run.
Okail, an Egyptian citizen and director here for the U.S.-based
Freedom House, is caught in a diplomatic battle between the United
States and Egypt. The Egyptian government has accused three U.S.-
based organizations, along with two other foreign non-governmental
organizations, of working illegally in Egypt, failing to pay taxes
and sowing unrest in the country.
U.S. officials have tried to get the case to go away. They have
accused the Egyptian government of oppressing civil society, and U.S.
lawmakers have threatened to cut off the $1.3 billion in annual U.S.
aid to Egypt’s military.
The Egyptian government has responded by pushing ahead with the
prosecution, setting a court date of Sunday and putting seven
Americans working for either the International Republican Institute
or the National Democratic Institute on a no-fly list. Egyptian state
media have depicted the case as a battle for national sovereignty
against Western bullies.
At least 16 Americans have been named in the case, and among those
being prevented from leaving Egypt is the son of U.S. Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood, director of IRI in Egypt, has taken
refuge at the U.S. Embassy. It is unclear whether he and the other
Americans will appear in court Sunday. Defendants who fail to show up
for the trial could face the maximum sentence, or five years.
But to Okail, this is not a battle about U.S. foreign aid or about
Americans who are being held in Egypt against their will. For Okail,
it’s about a struggle to promote democracy and human rights in a
country that deposed its longtime autocratic leader just a year ago
and that remains deeply conflicted about where to go next.
“This whole thing is not about saving Americans,” Okail said. “This
is about Egypt’s relations with the world and the future of civil
Okail returned to Egypt in August to run Freedom House’s operations
in Egypt and open an office. But since her return, she has been
harassed and her organization has been investigated, and she is not
optimistic that the charges against her will simply go away.
The Egyptian government has undertaken a successful public relations
campaign to criminalize the work of NGOs in the minds of many
Egyptians. The effort included a full-page story in the state-run
newspaper in October accusing Freedom House of being a Zionist
entity, code here for an agent of Israel.
In the government’s investigative documents, witnesses from the
security forces accuse Freedom House and other NGOs that promote
democracy of working in “coordination with the CIA.” The documents
also say that the United States encouraged Freedom House and others
to violate the law and that Freedom House “aims to control Egyptian
Both the U.S. government and Freedom House have denied those
allegations. Still, they are widely believed.
The NGOs “got foreign funds to pay for thugs to ignite riots and
chaos here,” said Manal Salama, a Cairo resident who expressed a view
that has become common here. “We have to close them all. The
Americans are against us.”
Around the time that the article ran in the state press, Okail said
she started receiving harassing phone calls. Sometimes they came at 1
a.m. or 5 a.m. The calls went to her own phone, as well as to her
husband’s and to her sister’s. The caller breathed and hummed into
the line but never spoke.
Okail had left a cozy life with her husband and twins in Britain to
return to Egypt and work at Freedom House. She said she was not
initially concerned when she received a summons from the Ministry of
Justice in late November. But when she showed up on Dec. 7, the judge
began proceedings against her and she was interrogated for seven
hours. She was later threatened with jail time if she spoke publicly
about what had happened.
“In London I was Dr. Okail,” she said. “Here I am ‘the accused Nancy
While Okail had initially stayed quiet about the case against her,
she has decided to speak out. With Freedom House’s offices raided and
shut on Dec. 29, she has taken to working out of a bookstore in an
upscale Cairo neighborhood, sipping coffee as she taps at her iPad.
The case against her, she said, sends the message that “it’s bad to
work on human rights or democracy building and if you have an
opportunity to go back and help your country, you will be indicted.”
Ironically, Okail once worked for the woman now leading the charge
against the foreign NGOs. In 2003, as a young graduate of the
American University in Cairo, she worked for the Ministry of
International Cooperation, led by Faiza Abou el Naga. Naga, one of
the few Mubarak-era holdovers in the new government, has used her
perch to push for the prosecutions. She has declined repeated
requests to be interviewed.
Okail said the other young, educated Egyptians who worked with her at
the ministry have since left the country. She was the only one to
“These are shining stars for Egypt,” she said. “But will they return
She said she hopes that by staying, and by speaking out, she will
signal that blaming outsiders no longer works in Egypt.
“It’s only the start of this battle,” she said. (© 2010 The
Washington Post Company 02/25/12)
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