In Tahrir Square in November
Hafsa Halawa*

CAIRO - "Hey there, Number 28!" – A friend texts me using my new nickname. Indeed, for at least one day of every month that’s what I answer to; Number 28. That’s where I fall in the list of 43 defendants on trial for working in what the government deemed "illegal civil society organizations."

It’s a story those following Egypt have read many times: the armed raid on December 29, 2011, the trial, and it’s been all but too well documented that on March 1, 2012, the non-Egyptians (except for American Robert Becker) fled the country. Then, nothing.

There has been a sprinkling of stories in foreign media (thanks to Becker’s insistence on keeping this in the news) and a one-fourth page piece in the local papers the day following court sessions. But after March 1, everyone decided for themselves that this was over for them.

But it’s not over for me, Mohamed El Wakeel, Rawda Ali, Ahmed Shawky, Amgad Morsy, Bassem Fathy, Magdy Moharram, Essam Ali, Ahmed Zakaria, Yehia Ghanem, Ahmed Abdel Aziz, Mohamed Abdel Aziz and Eslam Mohamed.

We are the Egyptians left behind; potentially facing five years in prison. Although I’m a slightly special case: Born and raised in the UK, with an Egyptian father, I am a dual national by birthright. But when it comes to this case and this revolution, I am Egyptian; no more, no less. It’s the reason why I stayed, despite calls to leave, the reason why I joined the National Democratic Institute and why I continue to fight even though others wouldn’t.

The past year has been more than trying on all of us; our lives paused, our reputations slandered in the media. This Thursday, Jan. 10, we expect to hear defense closing statements, and then the judge should adjourn until next month when he’ll deliver his verdict. He should, but we never know.

I had actually never met any of the people from the other organizations before our first court session on February 26, 2012. We don’t really see one another from one session to the next. Cramped into a small cage, stifled by the heat and unable to hear, court is our only chance to catch up. We dutifully answer ‘present’ when our names are called, after which, most of us retreat to catch up on each other’s lives: Shawky recently got married, Wakeel is writing his MBA thesis, Yehia was made editor-in-chief of Dar Al-Hilal. Rawda, Christina and I have our little chairs, fanning ourselves and occasionally squealing when a small cockroach runs up the walls. At least two of us come prepared with bin liners or newspapers so the boys can sit on the floor, and there’s always a pen for us to mark the cage walls.

What matters most

As a lawyer, nothing matters more to me than the transparency and independence of the three powers of governance. I have frequently voiced my dismay at both the judiciary and the executive branch on issues pertaining directly to this case. Yet, our judges have been nothing but professional and fair in abiding by criminal court procedures. Yes, it has dragged on far too long, owing mostly to the political nature of this case ... and the cage is unbearable. But that’s the law. I don’t worry that there is an element of corruption, or that the decision will be based on factors that are not legal.

What I do worry about, is that this case has put civil society firmly back in its own cage, and no one is willing to speak up and fight for it. Ultimately, the government won. The foreign organizations have closed, and are no longer operating in Egypt. Local organizations which continue to work do so only in the most discreet fashion. Funding is hard, if not impossible, to come by.

The political influence over this case and the effect it has had on the ability for organizations to work has stifled and strained resources. It has created a stigma no one can shake off: working for an NGO is only seen as a threat to Egypt’s sovereignty. A friend of mine tried to obtain government approval to register an NGO; a government employee asked her: "Are you one of those April 6 kids?" – she wouldn’t give her the forms.

Ultimately this trial is not about the 43 defendants. It’s not about former minister Fayza Abouelnaga, the US government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the American organizations. It’s about democracy. You can’t have real democracy without impartial media and a flourishing civil society. They provide the checks and balances on a social level that legal directives cannot. More importantly, they keep politicians honest.

The new Constitution, specifically Article 51, appears to solve the registration problem. Accordingly, NGOs should be allowed to work freely without the strain of stringent laws governing their activity. Many would argue the pro-Muslim Brotherhood government has worked to reform civil society - and I would agree; however, probably more out of their own interests, since the issue of funding remains untouched. The article is also still subject to the problematic NGO Law no. 84 of 2002. Ultimately, that is the crux of our case; while we are innocent of the charges against us, it is the ambiguities of the law that have gotten us here.

However, I believe that the precarious situation civil society now finds itself in is fundamentally the fault of civil society itself. The clear lack of focus on this trial and lobbying by all human rights groups in Egypt to amend the laws is disappointing to me, to say the least. For Egypt, it is purely destructive.

Furthermore, the lack of discussion on a policy level by politicians, revolutionaries and opposition members is failing democracy and our revolution. Instead of shedding light on how Egypt is strangling its civil society, everyone is far too scared they will also be labeled "American spies."

There is far more to democracy than protesting in Tahrir, opposing a few presidential decrees and voting in the polls. This country can never move forward and educate its people if we do not force a very public and very political discussion on the issues that matter most to the very democracy we’re fighting for.

On Thursday we make our way back into court. We’ll catch up on all our news from the Christmas break and halfheartedly strain to hear our lawyers defend us. But deep down we’re all getting anxious as a verdict draws near. Not because we can’t survive the worst — we can and we will. But because we know no one is watching.

*Hafsa Halawa is a lawyer and a former member of the National Democratic Institute.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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