Americans Appear At NGO Trial In Egypt

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Egyptian-American Dawat Soulam wanted to be a part her country's revolution and got a job training political parties with the democracy promotion group, the International Republican Institute. Soulam quit soon after, complaining that the U.S.-funded group refused to work with Islamist parties. She raised concerns with Egyptian authorities about that and questioned IRI's other activities. Months later, the IRI and other U.S. and Egyptian NGO's had their offices raided and shut. These revelations come at a complicated time as U.S. and Egyptian NGO's are back in court in Cairo.


Two Americans showed up in an Egyptian courtroom today for a trial that has soured relations between the two countries. U.S. democracy groups have been accused of operating illegally in Egypt. The U.S. had hoped that after spending millions of dollars to post bail to get the Americans on trial out of Egypt that this saga would come to an end. But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on new twists in the case.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Egyptian-American Dawlat Soulam says she wanted to be a part of the revolution and was happy to land a job last year at the International Republican Institute training political parties. But before long, she was raising concerns that IRI wasn't formally registered and was refusing to train certain parties

DAWLAT SOULAM: I used to approve training. So every time someone approached me with training for Islamists or Muslim Brotherhood, it used to be a rejection for this training. And I used to ask why. The answer was, oh, the Congress don't want us to train those people.

KELEMEN: Soulam says the training, which is funded by Congress, should have been open to everyone.

SOULAM: I don't support Islamist parties. I don't support Muslim Brotherhood. But I support equality between parties.

KELEMEN: IRI says it has worked with some Islamist parties, but the organization decided to focus mainly on newer, less well-organized political groups. Still, Soulam says she felt IRI was taking sides, and she laid out other complaints about its activities when she and several others quit last October in Cairo.

SOULAM: This was a collective resignation. But I was the only person who continue the battle and went to the responsible agencies and department, ask them why IRI was not registered. And I want to know what kind of business they do in the country and why the ministry of foreign affairs didn't register them yet. And if they're doing something wrong, they should be closed.

KELEMEN: A month later, IRI was shut down, along with other U.S. nongovernmental groups. Scott Mastic, the Middle East director of the International Republican Institute, paints Soulam as a disgruntled employee who persuaded others to join her cause.

SCOTT MASTIC: I'm really troubled by some of the rhetoric and terminology that Dawlat chose to use because it very much parrots the Egyptian government assault against IRI and other organizations, which I find, at the very least, a little bit suspicious or peculiar.

KELEMEN: And he's worried that this is all coming out while the trial is ongoing. The Americans who work for IRI left Egypt earlier this year, but Mastic says four local staffers were in the courtroom today.

MASTIC: The Egyptian staff are really living in an environment of fear for their safety based on an ongoing campaign against international organizations and civil society in general.

KELEMEN: That's one reason why Sherif Mansour decided to return to Cairo. He's an Egyptian-American who was working with Freedom House, though he left that group last week and ignored U.S. advice by showing up in the courtroom today to express solidarity with his former colleagues.

SHERIF MANSOUR: A lot of the people who are left behind basically holding the bag have nothing else to do. They cannot just pack and leave like the foreigners. Those people deserve the more support they can get.

KELEMEN: Mansour, who spoke to us before returning to Cairo, says this case could define the future of civil society in Egypt. U.S. officials keep saying they want to see the cases dropped and resolved diplomatically. A former ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, argues it's time to back off from this democracy promotion business for a while.

FRANK WISNER: This is a moment for a time out on the active use of American institutions in Egypt's politics until that political scene calms down.

KELEMEN: Wisner was speaking at the Center for American Progress where other analysts argued the U.S. should be pushing harder to make sure democracy activists in Egypt have the space to work. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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