Freedom House NGO Worker Returns to Egypt to Face Trial

Sherif Mansour, who works for Freedom House, was one of 43 Americans charged during the government’s crackdown on civil-society groups.

On the night of Feb. 11, 2011, Sherif Mansour walked onto his balcony, furtively lit a cigarette, and began to cry. Mansour was in Washington, D.C., but events 6,000 miles away in Cairo had shaken him to his core. Hosni Mubarak had just stepped down as Egypt’s president after 30 years in power, ousted by a protest movement that started just 18 days before.

Mansour’s voice wavered as he spoke of new beginnings in Cairo, and already he was dreaming of going back. It had been more than five years since Mansour left Egypt. Hailing from a family of democracy activists and a student of Egypt’s most famous voice for democracy, Saad Ibrahim, Mansour had pushed for reform since 1987, through years when relatively few Egyptians were willing to cross Mubarak and his regime. His mission caused him to flee following sham elections in 2005, after which Mubarak launched a harsh crackdown on the country’s fledging opposition. After his arrival in the United States, Mansour joined with Freedom House, a reputed NGO partly funded by the State Department, and oversaw efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. From afar, he had played a key role in helping along the protest movement that eventually forced Mubarak from power.

Not long after, in March of last year, Mansour took a euphoric trip to Egypt on behalf of Freedom House to pave the way for further reforms. But the giddy hopefulness that Mansour felt that night in Washington wouldn’t last. “I was thinking it was a new beginning,” Mansour says. “I lived this moment for about six months, until everything started going in the wrong direction.”

That’s when, Mansour says, the crackdown on democracy groups became strikingly apparent, with targeted harassment and media smears. Ever since Mubarak stepped down, Egyptians had been worrying about a coming counterrevolution, the creeping push by remnants of the old regime—including the military brass—to maintain their hold on power. The most tangible example of this pushback came months later in the direct targeting of civil-society groups like Mansour’s, when authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs in December.

Some of the groups had international connections, such as Freedom House and the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, which also receive some funding from the American government. Others were purely Egyptian. The final blow came this February, when 43 people were charged, including Mansour in absentia, in connection with illegal foreign funding and, for employees of the American and European NGOs, operating in Egypt without a license. The charges are widely considered to be politically motivated, a brazen effort to crack down on groups that had helped to challenge the old regime’s power. All the suspects were banned from leaving the country, including Americans—among them, Sam LaHood, the son of the U.S. transportation secretary. The ban caused an international incident, and LaHood and the five other American workers still in the country were allowed to leave after they sought shelter in the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. posted a $5 million bail. In addition to the charged groups, around 400 NGOs have reportedly been targeted for investigation.

Since then, the case has gradually slipped into the background, as both Egyptians and the international community alike have been riveted by news of the country’s presidential elections—the runoff will be June 16 between the Muslim Brotherhood’s main candidate and Mubarak’s former prime minister—and of the former president’s own trial for the deaths of protesters during the revolution, which ended in a stunning life sentence for Mubarak on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the NGO cases are quietly set for a hearing in Cairo on Tuesday, with the trial potentially beginning this week. Mansour returned today to face the charges in person, saying he hoped to stress that NGO workers had done nothing wrong.

“I’m not under any illusion that this is going to be an easy ride,” Mansour said Friday, as he prepared for the trip. “People are stuck out there, and no one is really helping them. They were left behind. Many of those people were recruited to and trained to work for us. They were doing legal, legitimate, and needed work, and my conscience cannot allow me to stay away while they are facing this on their own.”

Of the Americans originally held in Cairo, only Robert Becker, an NDI employee, elected to stay and face trial. Mansour, who married his fiancée and became a U.S. citizen within the last year, is the only American deemed a so-called “fugitive” who has announced plans to do the same. Because of the designation, Mansour expects to be arrested when he lands in Cairo on EgyptAir at 8pm local time tonight, though he hopes to win bail. During the trial, he and the other defendants will be held in the court’s notorious iron cage as they wait for a ruling on their fate—which could be up to six years in prison. Mansour said he hoped that the charges would be thrown out.

As his departure date approached, Mansour said the decision to return was feeling more and more like the right one, and that with elections nearly complete, it was time for democracy groups to renew their fight. And he found himself talking again of a fresh start. “It’s a gut feeling more than anything,” he said. “I think now this whole old government is going away. There is hope for a new beginning.”