By Nancy Okail
Dec. 20, 2018
I’ll never forget the words I read
scribbled on the wall when I was first put into a cage in a Cairo courtroom, on
Feb. 26, 2012: “If defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality.”
That was the first day of my trial, Case
No. 173/2011. (In Egyptian courtrooms, defendants are kept in cages.) Along
with 42 other defendants, 17 of them Americans, who worked for international
nongovernmental organizations in Egypt, I was charged with operating an
organization without a license (not true) and receiving illegal foreign funds
(also not true). All of us worked for organizations promoting the rule of law,
transparency and democracy.
On June 4, 2013, we were found guilty and
sentenced to one to five years in prison. The court claimed, with no legal
evidence, that we were a threat to national security and was conspiring with
foreign agents. But in February of this year, an appeal for a retrial was
accepted and in November, it began. Now our ordeal is finally over. On
Thursday, a court in Cairo acquitted us of all charges.
I am, of course, very happy to see our
innocence finally, officially recognized. And more important, I hope that this
news brings some needed optimism to Egyptian civil society groups, some of
which are still being similarly prosecuted. But that doesn’t mean I am able to
Despite the acquittal, I have already been
punished, as have my co-defendants in various ways: some of us were unable to
find work in Egypt or driven into exile and separated from our children and our
parents and our families. In 2012, I was forced to leave Egypt for the United
States, while my twins, Adam and Farida, stayed behind. For six years, I have
longed for my family and my home.
I hid the truth from the twins, who were 3
years old when I left Egypt and couldn’t come with me for personal and
bureaucratic reasons. I told them that I’d gone to Washington for work, not
because I was being prosecuted at home. My sister brought them to visit once a
Last Christmas, I finally told them the truth.
Their wisdom amazed me. “Mommy, you should continue your work,” Adam said.
Farida called me a “hero.” Adam added: “We love Egypt. How can we fix things
there so nothing like that happens to anyone again?”
That has always been my concern, not my
experience of injustice, which, compared to how many other Egyptians have
suffered, is relatively minor. How can we fix Egypt? In the last five years, my
country has become one of the top jailers of journalists in the world; people
are regularly abducted by the security services; torture is common, and so are
unfair trials; the right to protest is restricted.
The truth is that what Egypt needs is
exactly the kind of work that I and 42 other people were put on trial for
doing. Nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups and advocates should
oversee the government and examine its structures, making the case for
democracy, transparency and accountability.
Is that possible? There are 30 Egyptian
civil society members barred from travelling right now. Some have had their
assets frozen and have been prosecuted under the very same case 173. Many of
them are civil society leaders who have served the cause of democracy and human
rights for many years. These people shouldn’t be treated like criminals; they
should be allowed to help build Egypt.
After we were granted a retrial, the United
States released $195 million of aid that had been withheld partly because of
the Egyptian government’s human rights violations and its restrictive law
governing nongovernmental organizations.
The acquittals on Thursday would be truly
meaningful as a sign of progress if they were the start of a real change to how
Egypt governs civil society. This should not stop at our being proven innocent,
or at the hoped-for end of the prosecution of the others in Case No. 173.
Progress would entail a true reformation of Egypt’s restrictive laws on
nongovernmental organizations and a change in attitude from the judiciary.
Case No. 173 began under military rule,
lasted throughout the short presidency of Mohammed Morsi, and then was reopened
under Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The heads of state
changed, but the structures stayed the same.
The Egyptian government has started taking
steps in the right direction: First, the retrial and then, in October,
President Sisi announced his intention to change the law on nongovernmental
organizations. A committee is supposed to submit a new draft next month to the
cabinet before it goes to Parliament. I hope such amendments would really allow
human rights and democracy organizations in Egypt to do their work and hold the
government accountable without being intimidated, prosecuted or jailed.
This verdict should not be seen as the end
of the chapter, but rather as a beginning of many effective reforms. I still
remember the words on the wall of that cage.
Nancy Okail is the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle