CAIRO — Rawda Ali, 30, doesn’t look like a criminal. Standing in the middle of the dingy cage that Egyptian defendants occupy during their trials, her head scarf is exceptionally fashionable, looking more like a Spanish wrap than traditional Islamic garb. She carries a designer bag. Her iPhone cover photo is of her flip-flops, one of the few things the security forces didn’t take when they raided the National Democratic Institute at gunpoint more than a year ago.
The charge she’s facing also isn’t typical. In a court that usually hosts drug dealers and murderers, she’s the unwitting defender of democracy promotion, charged with helping Western nonprofit organizations operate illegally here. While her Western colleagues fled months ago, she and 14 Egyptians may face years in jail for their efforts to promote democratic movements among Egypt’s nascent political parties.
Even without a conviction, she’s paid a heavy price for trying to promote American values in a revolutionary Egypt.
Ali cannot work. Fellow Egyptians have branded her a felon and American spy. A member of Parliament called for her execution. Her address and national identification number have been broadcast on state television.
With the American defendants gone, few outside Egypt pay any attention. She’s appeared in the cage 12 times, and the case against her has languished for more than a year. She’s known as defendant No. 27.
“You have been convincing people to trust democracy,” Ali said. “And you knew this was a risk. When something like this happens, you don’t leave.”
Hafsa Halawa, 26, is defendant No. 28. Like Ali, she’s frustrated by the length of the legal process and how the delay has put her life on hold. She’s frustrated that the American organization she worked for has left her fellow Egyptians and her behind to face these charges alone. The National Democratic Institute continues to pay her salary and the mounting legal fees, but only one American, Robert Becker, ever appears in the cage with them to defend a core American value, even though institute officials attend every hearing.
“I understand how they feel. It’s been frustrating and it’s been difficult to face the uncertainty,” for Egyptians and Westerners, said Leslie Campbell, senior institute associate and the regional director for Middle East and North Africa programs, who’s attended some of the sessions. “We continue to pay salaries and we pay legal costs, and we will continue to do so until this case is resolved. In addition, we continue to raise the trial and the issues of this case to the Obama administration and to members of Congress to encourage them to look for a resolution.”
Egyptian officials raided the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and several other organizations in December 2011, taking computers, money and files, and charging 29 Westerners and 14 Egyptians with working for an unregistered organization – even though Egypt had made it impossible to register. At the time, the raid was seen as the work of Fayza Aboul Naga, former President Hosni Mubarak’s minister of international cooperation, who, like Mubarak, saw the West’s promotion of civil society as promoting instability.
Ali began working for the National Democratic Institute six years ago as an accountant. After Mubarak fell two years ago, the institute expanded its operation ninefold. Ali moved to the political section and was in charge of educating centrist groups about what it means to work in a democratic country after a half-century of dictatorial rule. She met members of President Barack Obama’s election team and stopped socializing, spending all her time at work. She wanted to be a part of the new Egypt.
“On the ground we were incredibly warmly welcomed,” Ali said. Once the charges were filed, “Immediately we were called spies.”
Shortly after the raid, which lasted for six hours, Egyptian state security officials interrogated Ali. They accused her, she said, of threatening the Camp David peace accord with Israel and of worsening Egypt’s economic woes.
The U.S. workers also were charged, but after their names and addresses were made public, they moved into the U.S. Embassy. Ali faced her neighbors at home. She learned that the Americans left Egypt last March from a friend.
It’s uncertain how much longer the trial will go on. The next court date is March 6 and the trial is in closing arguments, but there’s no deadline for a verdict.
If convicted, Ali and her co-defendants face five years in prison. Under Egyptian law, the Americans who left will be convicted in absentia for not staying to face charges.
The National Democratic Institute, which began working here in 1998, has vowed to come back after the case is resolved. Ali and Halawa are skeptical, saying they spent months working alongside Egypt’s new political parties building trust, which has been broken. Trustworthy organizations don’t leave, they said.
Ali has become accustomed to appearing in the cage. She takes pictures inside. Sometimes her family slips her sweets between breaks. Sometimes, members of the political parties she once worked with come to court to support her. Between court sessions, she and her co-defendants are let out of the cage, but they can’t escape the trial.
Ali, who once was at the nexus of post-Mubarak Egypt, now watches from the sidelines, wishing she could pass on what she learned to Egypt’s newest political parties. She played no part in the presidential election last summer and the recent referendum on a new constitution, and she doesn’t expect to play a role in the upcoming parliamentary election. The realization brings tears to her eyes.
Still, she has no regrets about working with the National Democratic Institute.
“The work of the NDI is highly needed,” Ali said. “I believe politics changes lives for the better.”
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.