Walking into a trap: How I ended up on trial in Egypt

When he was offered a role with an international NGO, journalist Yehia Ghanem had no idea it would land him in court.

Illustration Caged- Story 27
[Chris Mugarura/Al Jazeera]

In the months after the Egyptian revolution, the mood of unity that had prevailed throughout the protests began to be eroded – replaced with something more divisive and violent. For Egyptian journalist Yehia Ghanem, events would also take a strange turn – on to a path that would eventually lead him into a cage in a Cairo courtroom. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here.

In the months after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president it seemed as though some invisible force was trying to turn what had been a peaceful revolution into a deeply divided and violent one. There were riots, assassinations and acts of arson; all committed by unknown perpetrators.

The state-controlled media pointed at everyone from left-wing anarchists to Islamists.  

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had taken over and was beginning its policy of divide and rule. Its objective appeared to be to sow seeds of doubt – between all those who had been involved in the revolution and also between Muslims and Christians. 

When, on October 9, 2011, 27 peaceful Christian demonstrators were killed by the armed forces in front of the state television building, SCAF indicated that the army and riot police had charged at the demonstrators in response to shots from an unknown third party that had fired on troops who were stationed around the building.

Doubts were cast upon the Islamists, although their parties denounced the massacre.  

At the same time, however, the military was making moves towards the country’s two main Islamic political parties – the Muslim Brotherhood, which had, in the wake of the revolution, formed its Freedom and Justice Party, and the Salafist Al-Nour Party. It sought to stir rivalry between the two.

The unprecedented scenes of solidarity at Tahrir Square had slipped away. What had remained was a scam with SCAF at the centre, supported by public and private media and intelligence and former regime-created alliances.

While the US was not being openly targeted by the military, it was the subject of a fierce disinformation campaign waged by the media – a media that had long had a bias against it. Why, then, would a military that had always been known to have close relations with the US encourage campaigns against it?

The answer would begin to emerge months later when 42 employees of US NGOs found themselves on trial in Egypt. I was among them. This is how I found myself there.

My journey to the cage

In June 2011, I received a call from a former professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo. She was, at the time, the country director for the Washington DC-based NGO, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). She had recommended me for the position of director and adviser for a new training programme that the ICFJ intended to launch for Egyptian journalists, she explained. I thanked her and promised that I would consider the offer once it was received. 

Later that month, the professor introduced me to the head of the planning section at the ICFJ, who was visiting Egypt to oversee an already existing training programme. We agreed that the future training programme should focus on improving the journalistic skills and professional ethics of Egyptian journalists. We also discussed my potential employment and she made one condition: I would either have to resign from Al-Ahram newspaper, where I worked, or take a sabbatical. I refused.

Then, in July, Patrick Butler, the vice president of the ICFJ, visited Egypt to work on the regional programme that had been started by the professor from the American University in Cairo. The programme – ICFJ’s largest in the Middle East – included journalists from various Arab countries and was being held in partnership with Al-Ahram Canadian University, which was owned by Al-Ahram newspaper, where I was the managing editor. The programme was fully funded by the US Agency for International Development. 

When Patrick and I discussed the future training programme, I reiterated my refusal to resign or take a sabbatical from Al-Ahram but said that, should this condition remain, I could, instead, work as a trainer on it. He explained that the ICFJ preferred that their trainers not be associated with any state-owned media outlets. I suggested that they ought instead to consider whether the journalist was independent and that he could take a look at my past work to confirm that I was.

He was soon convinced and proceeded to tell me that he had already signed a lease for an ICFJ office in Cairo, since that was a requirement of the Egyptian government in order for the process of being officially registered to begin. 

I later learned that Egyptian law gives foreign NGOs two options: either to work in partnership with an Egyptian counterpart, such as a local NGO, university or media outlet, or to apply for registration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to work independently.

The ICFJ had been working in partnerships with local media outlets and universities in Egypt since 2004. But since 2006, it had been applying to work independently.

Most of the foreign NGOs’ applications, including the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House, had been put on hold by the Mubarak government. This, we would come to understand during our trial, had been intentional. 

The government had wanted to welcome foreign NGOs into Egypt so as to avoid being labelled a dictatorship. But by procrastinating over the application process, the government maintained control over them, able to wield the threat of rendering them illegal as it saw fit. This is what happened with the ICFJ, in spite of the fact that it had a local partner as required by law.

By mid-August, I was contracted with the ICFJ to head one of its training programmes. I was enthusiastic about the prospect of helping fellow Egyptian journalists. 

A month after returning to Washington DC, Patrick contacted me to tell me that the lawyer who was proceeding with the ICFJ’s application for registration had informed him that, according to government requirements, the lease on the office he had rented in Egypt should be signed either by an Egyptian or a foreigner residing in the country. Since he was neither, he asked me if I could sign a new lease for the ICFJ. The ICFJ’s lawyer assured me that I would have no legal liability, so I did so. When, during the first two months, there were some banking problems transferring the rent from the ICFJ to the landlord, I volunteered to pay him myself until the problems were resolved.

Later on, during my trial, the prosecution would use that office lease against me, alleging that I had opened a branch for a foreign NGO without proper registration in Egypt. It was, of course, untrue. But that didn’t seem to matter.

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from an upcoming book.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera