This post first appeared on ‘The Side Room’, a blog written by PhD students at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).
For most doctoral students in International Development the three or four years spent undertaking a PhD can feel like a prison sentence. I, and my fellow PhD colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), spend the majority of our time confined to a desk and only get ‘let out’ for a period of intensive fieldwork. As we finally begin to throw off the shackles of the PhD, submitting the draft of our thesis, we ask ourselves what impact our work has had, if any, in the wider world. We ask ourselves, ‘what next?’ I’m sure when Nancy Okail, a recent IDS doctoral graduate, asked herself these questions she didn’t expect to be facing a real prison sentence while standing inside a cage in an Egyptian courtroom.
I first met Nancy when I started my PhD in the autumn of 2008. Already halfway through her own PhD, she struck me as intelligent, reflective and deeply committed. When she finished her doctorate Nancy chose not to follow the usual route into academia but wanted to return home to Egypt to contribute to the post-Mubarak efforts to strengthen democracy.
In August 2011 Nancy took up a post as Freedom House’s Egypt Country Director to oversee a programme aimed at promoting democracy, human rights and a free media. Yet, shortly after arriving in Egypt she and other colleagues at Freedom House faced harassment and intimidation from the interim military-led authorities. At the same time a smear campaign was spread by the state-run media, suggesting that foreign funded non-government organisations (NGOs) were working to destabilise the country. Then in December the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of a number of foreign-funded NGOs involved in democratisation, including that of Freedom House. Nancy and 42 other staff members, including 17 Americans, from a number of NGOs were arrested. They were charged with working with funds received from a foreign government without a license. This charge carries a sentence of five years incarceration and such a ruling can only be given with evidence of intent to ‘overthrow the status quo’. Bearing in mind that numerous civil society organisations operate without a license in Egypt and that these laws are used by the Egyptian authorities to manipulate the NGOs working in Egypt, the case is clearly highly political in nature. Follow this link to read Mariz Tadros’s well-informed analysis of the background and questionable nature of the sentencing.
In March of the following year the Egyptian authorities permitted the 17 American NGO staff members to return home. Following their release the case received significantly less coverage in the international media. For those left behind the situation became increasingly dire. As a result, Nancy and a number of the other Egyptians who had been arrested fled the country. Yet, with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Morsi, in June 2012 hopes were momentarily revived. It was thought this government would pursue a more even-handed line. However, little changed. The case continued in a manner that demonstrated the continued stifling of political freedoms. Last week, after a long and emotional wait, the verdict was finally delivered. Nancy was sentenced in absentia and received a maximum five-year prison term. Listen to her response to the ruling and what it suggests for Egypt’s political transition here.
Nancy’s case (and that of her 25 Egyptian NGO colleagues) demonstrates the risks for those who choose to support political freedoms and democratisation in the face of state opposition. Moreover, it exemplifies the serious resistance to, if not, lack of positive reform in Egypt’s post-revolutionary political system. There is mounting evidence that the Egyptian government is taking steps to exclude minority groups, to restrict political dissent, and to concentrate power in the hands of the executive branch of government. As I type these words I ask myself, has democracy been served in the wake of the monumental demonstrations seen in Tahrir Square? And, what kinds of political change have these demonstrations stimulated?
I wrote this blog with a simple desire to show solidarity for a previous PhD colleague and to raise awareness about the tragic circumstances she and her fellow Egyptians find themselves in. When I began writing, ‘fellow Egyptians’ referred to the 25 Egyptians charged alongside Nancy in this NGO crackdown. Yet, now, as I reach the end of this blog I realise that the tragedy not only relates to Nancy and her 25 colleagues, but also extends to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who demonstrated in Tahrir Square for a more democratic future for their country.
Naysan Adlparvar is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. His research investigates the changing pattern of identity and relations between ethno-sectarian groups in Bamyan, in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan, and assesses how these relations were formed from 1890s to the present day.