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In Egypt, American NGO workers head to court in civil society trial

Two Americans and a German returned to Egypt to face trial with Egyptian colleagues and draw attention to an NGO case they say has major implications for Egypt's democratic transition.

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In this December 2011 file photo, workers from the National Democratic Institute, a non-governmental organization, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian government is putting 43 civil society workers – including at least 16 Americans – with operating nongovernmental organizations without a license and receiving illegal foreign funding.

Mohammed Asad/AP/File

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When an Egyptian court held a hearing in the trial of 43 civil society workers today, two Americans joined 14 Egyptians and one German in the metal cage used for defendants in Egyptian courtrooms.

One had stayed behind when the US paid millions of dollars in bail to spirit six other Americans out of the country on a private jet. The other, an Egyptian-American, was in the US when the charges were announced, but returned to Egypt voluntarily Sunday to stand trial. Both have thrown a wrench into the US government’s plan to extricate itself from what had become the biggest crisis in US-Egypt relations in decades.

Both men, who could face up to six years in prison, said they came back because they think it is important to fight the charges, which they say are false and politically motivated,  in part because the outcome of the case could impact the future of civil society in Egypt. And both say they also felt a duty to stand with their Egyptian colleagues on trial, who don’t have the luxury of watching the drama play out from the safety of the US.

“Of the four Egyptians charged from NDI, three of them worked for me. At every turn when I was pressured to leave, I couldn’t stomach it,” says Robert Becker, who worked for the National Democratic Institute, an organization loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party in the US that promotes democracy abroad. “You don’t walk away from your colleagues.”

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