Inside the Cage
August 16, 2012
defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality! I found those words scribbled on the wall of my prisoner cage in
the courtroom where I stood trial with fourteen other defendants in the case
against foreign funding of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.
many, I had great hopes for change in Egypt after the revolution. I was excited
to move back to Cairo as the new country director for Freedom House, an NGO
that supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy
and human rights across the globe. In August 2011, I packed up my life and my
two-year-old twins and left England, where I had been living while working on
my PhD, to return to my homeland. I was not naïve enough to believe that it
would be an easy job. But I never imagined that just a few months later I would
be in a cage.
always been committed to making Egypt a better place. I began my career in
organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme.
I also worked with Saad Eddin Ibrahim at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development
Studies, a pro-democracy organization, where my colleagues and I faced constant
harassment by state security. I
even spent some time working at the Egyptian Ministry of International
Cooperation in a sincere effort to reform the government from within.
Ironically, it was this ministry, under Minister Fayza Abul Naga, that would
later bring the case against NGOs that put me in that cage. It became clear to
me that individual attempts for change in the face of Mubarak’s dictatorship
and the corruption within his regime were futile.
returned to Egypt, I thought that the dynamics had changed. Yet soon
afterwards, I was subjected to harassing phone calls by local authorities.
Beginning in early December I was interrogated regularly by state prosecutors
and threatened with prison if I publicly spoke about their investigation. The
December 29 raids on NGOs came as a surprise to those who were not aware of our
harassment and intimidation. I became one of forty-three NGO staff, including
seventeen Americans, who were charged with operating an organization and
receiving funds from a foreign government without a license. The maximum
sentence for these charges is five years in prison with hard labor.
aspects of this case represent a microcosm of the broader challenges Egypt has
faced during its transition. The case was designed and orchestrated by the
executive branch of government, a fact that casts doubt on judicial independence,
which is itself critical for true democratic transition. Despite the potential
peril, I was proud to be in that cage, standing up for our right to justice and
with a firm belief in our cause and our innocence. Unfortunately, the world’s attention
waned after the charged foreigners were allowed to leave Egypt in March. The
pressure that we continue to face from authorities, far from lessening, has
become much worse. The defendants who remain in Egypt feel very isolated and
have no confidence that this trial, political in nature from the very
beginning, will have a fair outcome.
still-powerful state media has demonized the protesters in Tahrir Square,
saying they are working against the country’s best interest. Similarly, it
portrays us as spies in the service of a foreign agenda and petitions have been
presented to the judges requesting the case be reframed to involve espionage,
which could in theory lead to a life sentence or execution.
the most devastating developments was the decision by the United States to use
a waiver to keep $1.3 billion in military funding flowing to Egypt without
condition, despite the failure of the Egyptian authorities to exhibit the
required progress towards a genuine transition to democracy. This has shown
Egyptian authorities that, even if they ignore fundamental human rights, there
will be no negative consequences in their relationship with Washington.
Islamists who won elections for the now-disbanded parliament seem to care very
little about our situation. They are engaged in a power struggle with the
Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and choose their battles and prioritize
their interests. Despite claiming to preserve the dignity of women, they did
not raise a single voice to protest the fact that three of us women defendants
were squashed in a thirty-seven-square-foot cage with more than twenty men,
including accused arms traffickers and drug smugglers.
only real support we receive in Egypt has been from other NGOs, which have
issued strong statements condemning the crackdown on civil society. These are
the same groups that maintain the selfless struggle to save the revolution and
they may still face our fate. Those who remain unmentioned are our families and
friends. Crammed on court benches, they sit quietly at every hearing, shedding
tears and listening to calls for our execution during a process that has shown
no sign of going in the right direction. All they wish is for our nightmare to
We still hope justice will
prevail in our case but we have all paid a high price already. I will never
forget the sound of the iron doors of the courtroom cage being slammed behind
us, making an example of those who dared to stand up for democracy.
Nancy Okail is the director of Freedom House Egypt, a non-governmental
organization that supports human rights and open government. She can be
followed on Twitter at @NancyGEO.