WASHINGTON — I’ll never forget the words I read scribbled on the wall when I was first put into a cage in a Cairo courtroom, on Feb. 26, 2012: “If defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality.”
That was the first day of my trial, Case No. 173/2011. (In Egyptian courtrooms, defendants are kept in cages.) Along with 42 other defendants, 17 of them Americans, who worked for international nongovernmental organizations in Egypt, I was charged with operating an organization without a license (not true) and receiving illegal foreign funds (also not true). All of us worked for organizations promoting the rule of law, transparency and democracy.
On June 4, 2013, we were found guilty and sentenced to one to five years in prison. The court claimed, with no legal evidence, that we were a threat to national security and were conspiring with foreign agents. But in February of this year, an appeal for a retrial was accepted and in November, it began. Now our ordeal is finally over. On Thursday, a court in Cairo acquitted us of all charges.
I am, of course, very happy to see our innocence finally, officially recognized. And more important, I hope that this news brings some needed optimism to Egyptian civil society groups, some of which are still being similarly prosecuted. But that doesn’t mean I am able to fully celebrate.
Despite the acquittal, I have already been punished, as have my co-defendants in various ways: some of us were unable to find work in Egypt or driven into exile and separated from our children and our parents and our families. In 2012, I was forced to leave Egypt for the United States, while my twins, Adam and Farida, stayed behind. For six years, I have longed for my family and my home.
I hid the truth from the twins, who were 3 years old when I left Egypt and couldn’t come with me for personal and bureaucratic reasons. I told them that I’d gone to Washington for work, not because I was being prosecuted at home. My sister brought them to visit once a year.
Last Christmas, I finally told them the truth. Their wisdom amazed me. “Mommy, you should continue your work,” Adam said. Farida called me a “hero.” Adam added: “We love Egypt. How can we fix things there so nothing like that happens to anyone again?”
That has always been my concern, not my experience of injustice, which, compared to how many other Egyptians have suffered, is relatively minor. How can we fix Egypt? In the last five years, my country has become one of the top jailers of journalists in the world; people are regularly abducted by the security services; torture is common, and so are unfair trials; the right to protest is restricted.
The truth is that what Egypt needs is exactly the kind of work that I and 42 other people were put on trial for doing. Nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups and advocates should oversee the government and examine its structures, making the case for democracy, transparency and accountability.