CAIRO — In a cafe off the Nile, a man with a backpack and a quiet air orders double espressos and awaits the next twist in a diplomatic drama that has cast him as the lone American peering from a defendant’s cage in a musty Egyptian courtroom.
It’s not an image Washington or Cairo relishes, but Robert Becker, the son of a firefighter who wanders the world as a political operative, is a chain-smoking conundrum, a man of principle to his friends but a tedious complication to U.S. and Egyptian officials seeking to move beyond a scandal that has damaged relations between once-close allies.
Becker refused to board a plane in March that carried six other Americans away from possible prison sentences on charges of operating illegally funded pro-democracy organizations. A state media campaign portrayed them as spies and agents of Israel. Congressional outrage and phone calls from the White House prompted Egypt’s military-run government to lift a travel ban, allowing the Americans to race from the sanctuary oftheU.S. Embassy to the airport.
Except Becker, 43, who faces his next court session in the mesh cage on Tuesday.
“Call it moral grounds or stubbornness,” said Becker, a trainer for the National Democratic Institute who led a team of four Egyptians to teach political parties the art of campaigning. “I never contemplated leaving this country if [criminal] charges were hanging over the Egyptian staff working for me. I wasn’t interested in hiding behind the color of my passport.”
Becker and the other defendants, including Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are accused of running unlicensed nongovernmental organizations and receiving illicit financing for the U.S.-based groups: the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. NDI, whose board of directors is headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the other organizations promote civil society and democracy programs around the world.
Hard-line states, including the former government of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced Saturday to life in prison for the deaths of hundreds of protesters last year, often accuse such groups of political meddling and espionage. Thirteen Egyptians have also been charged in this case, which prompted anger in much of Egypt after the army, which receives $1.3 billion in U.S. aid, allowed the six Americans to leave.
NDI, which has suspended activities in Egypt, laid off Becker after his first court hearing. He characterized the dismissal as “vindictive” and the result of his decision to stand trial. The organization posted his $330,000 bail and is paying his legal fees. The Egyptians on NDI’s staff, who are also out on bail, have remained on the organization’s payroll.
NDI spokeswoman Kathy Gest said the nonprofit group does not comment on personnel matters.
Becker has been drawn into a struggle between strategic allies against the backdrop of the uprisings that have swept the Arab world. His ordeal briefly became ammunition in the U.S. presidential race when Republican primary candidates criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the NGO affair. He never sought refuge atthe U.S. Embassy, defiantly living in his apartment even as pressure intensified for him to get on the plane.
“I was told this was becoming Barack Obama’s Iranian hostage crisis,” said Becker, who could face at least six years in prison. “My response was, there’s not a bag over my head. I’m not a hostage.”
Becker has a deep voice, bristly hair and the matter-of-fact style of a beat cop. His work on political issues and campaigns in Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Iowa and Virginia have instilled a keen sense for sound bites, plotting strategy and, in countries such as Egypt, guiding activists and fledgling politicians emerging from decades of repression. He often works nonstop for months and then retreats to a beach in Puerto Rico.
“I’ve gotten a couple of phone calls saying, ‘You’re a spy, you’re going to die.’ But I was born and raised inWashington, D.C.Cairo doesn’t scare me,” he said, referring to threats that have since subsided, allowing him to walk undeterred through a neighborhood of embassies and boutiques. “It’s been a surreal experience.”
He joined NDI last June after a stint training activists in Rwanda. He and his Egyptian team taught political parties, from leftists to the Muslim Brotherhood, campaign tactics for the first parliamentary elections since the fall of Mubarak. He spent much of his time in Cairo and the Nile Delta, and was not at the NDI office when police stormed it in late December, hauling away maps, files and computers.
NDI had operated in Egypt without a license under the Mubarak government. The organization filed registration papers every year but existed in a gray area the state preferred. The interim government did not officially sanction NDI either. But in a move that appeared to legitimize the organization in the eyes of authorities, the new government issued credentials to NDI’s staff to monitor parliamentary elections.
At the same time, harsher political currents were sharpening anti-American sentiment. After decades of Mubarak’s rule, Egypt was fixated on reaffirming its sovereignty and altering its image as a proxy — some would say patsy — for U.S. regional policy. The NGOs were an ideal target: Technically, they were operating illegally and attention on them allowed the interim government to blame “foreign hands” for months of unrest and economic turmoil.
“It’s almost as if they were testing the U.S.,” Becker said. “The theatrics of an armed raid and a trial.”
He was in a meeting with four members of Egypt’s new parliament when a Twitter message flashed that he had been charged with two felony counts and accused of fomenting instability.
“I told them, ‘I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I just learned what I’m doing is a crime,’ ” he said, adding that earlier he had been interrogated about his job description and NDI’s funding. “Assurances were coming from both governments that everything would be fine. But we didn’t know if arrests were imminent. From mid-January on, I’ve had a bag packed in case they knock on my door at 2 a.m.”
That immediate fear has been subsumed by a sense of being alone in an unclear legal predicament.
“I don’t fault my colleagues who left,” he said. “There were some who wanted to stay and fight it. It was murky.... The U.S. had to fight for its people.”
In early March, Becker and 13 Egyptians stepped into a mesh cage in a courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo. It was dirty, the acoustics were bad. Lawyers hollered amid a crush of journalists and blurred faces. Becker’s Egyptian staff whispered translations of the proceedings. He said he wondered at the time if his presence would help or hurt the cases of the Egyptians; his staff, he said, told him that an American standing with them and facing a similar fate was a potent symbol for human rights.
“I knew the impact of it,” he said. “I walked out of the cage with 50 lenses pointed at me.”
The case against 43 Middle Eastern, European and American defendants has unnerved civil and human rights groups, which, despite a rebellion that toppled an autocrat, continue to be targeted and harassed.
“It’s been a huge setback for democracy and there has been a ripple effect across society,” Becker said, noting that about 25,000 Egyptians monitored the parliamentary elections while only about 9,700 observed the recent presidential poll. “That’s fear and lack of funding. Democracy doesn’t survive if citizens are afraid to organize and speak out.”
A motion to dismiss the charges has been filed, but the government may be loath to dissolve a trial it championed. For many Egyptians, though, the case has faded into a curious sideshow next to a polarizing presidential election and uncertainty over a constitution and the nation’s future.
Becker walked through the Cairo neighborhood he now calls home, where shopkeepers and the man selling newspapers recognize him as the American who got into trouble. He sat in a cafe by a window in the late-morning sun. He unzipped his backpack, checked his email. He spoke of his fate, and of America’s credibility.
“I don’t think we should have run,” he said. “I’ve said it many times: Captains should stay with their crews.”