(Fourteen Egyptian activists who worked in Egypt with civil society groups stand inside a cage during their trial in Cairo on Feb. 26, 2012. AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki)
It must be a relief for all the foreign aid workers involved in the NGO”s case in Egypt. They were finally allowed to leave the country and be re-united with their loved ones. Their departure marked an end to their painful ordeal. On the other hand, their Egyptian colleagues were not as fortunate, their fate has not yet been decided.
So what exactly is their crime? Maybe securing a decent job in a country plagued with high unemployment is a crime. Maybe proactivity and refusing to waste their time sipping coffee and tea and playing backgammon is a crime. Or maybe advocating democracy and human rights in a country that has suffered from oppression for decades is the real crime.
After all, who really want true democracy in Egypt? The potential of a strong civil society can be scary. Some want democracy to be a game, a kind of cliché aimed at securing their interests and ambitions; others want a tamed democracy that does not threaten their power and influence.
The formal charges against those fourteen skilful, well-educated Egyptians are: receiving illegal “foreign” funding and working without a license.
So maybe “foreign” is the key word, but not every foreign organisation is under scrutiny. Part of these Egyptians’ misfortune is working for American organisations when the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt is, in high probability, heading towards divorce. With hindsight, they should have picked Saudi, Qatari or even Turkish organizations; funding and license wouldn’t be an issue then.
The xenophobic doctrine started after the 1952 revolution and Nasser rule. His idea of nationalism and patriotism was always mixed with anti-foreign rhetoric. Nasser’s suspicion of foreigners’ motives led him to “cleanse” them out of every Egyptian institution, even the film and fashion industries were not exempt: a quick glance at the cast of any Egyptian film from the forties would reflect the nature of a cosmopolitan Egypt that quickly changed from the late fifties onward.
Egyptians who worked with foreigners were also under surveillance. In fact, even a desire to leave the country for any Western destination was enough to raise questions, particularly for public servants (the vast majority of Egyptians under Nasser rule). Egyptians got to know the notorious “yellow paper”: a license to leave the country, known for its yellow colour and obtained from the Mogama, you couldn’t leave passport control without it. The unfortunate Egyptian had to obtain several signatures starting with that of his direct supervisor, and finally from an official of the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), a long, tedious process that might take a few weeks, or even months.
Xenophobia had a new boost following the downfall of Mubarak, the messy transitional period having reignited the passion for conspiracy theories. The devious foreign fingers became the easy excuse for every set back. Justice and accountability is a hard rocky pass, not convenient for many who want to maintain the status quo and are willing to sacrifice a few scapegoats for the sake of some short-sighted political interests.
The practice is also considered as harmless; after all foreign countries would probably search high and low for solutions to help their trapped citizens, including bail out and secret dodgy deal in order to solve the crisis. But who really cares about their Egyptian colleagues? Well, after his or her immediate families, the answer is: no one.
As the anger about the recent NGO crisis has pre-occupied many in Egypt, some have viewed the problem from the perspective of the tense relationship between US and Egypt, focusing mainly on the foreigners involved. The plight of the Egyptians NGOs workers was overlooked, which brings us back to my earlier question: what exactly is their crime? Or are they are just unfortunate because they don’t hold an exotic passport? Indeed, none of them hold a dark blue American passport, a burgundy red EU passport, or even a navy blue Israeli passport; the only passport each one of them has is the green Egyptian passport. Is that a bonus or a penalty?
Sadly, the Egyptian government has opted for lifting the travel ban on the foreigners involved as a way out of the crisis, rather than the more graceful and fairer option of dropping the case completely – or even granting an amnesty. This decision would lead to a trial in absentia of foreign workers with a verdict that would be meaningless as far as they are concerned. It also means that the Egyptians involved would have to face the painful ordeal alone, even considered by some as traitors.
I certainly hope this would not be the case, I have full confidence in the Egyptian judiciary and I look forward to a fair verdict, which would rectify this injustice regardless of the legal position of these organisations. If the US and Germany care about their sons, Egypt should care about its sons too. These Egyptians and their families deserve the peace of mind that their foreign colleagues and their loved one are currently enjoying.