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Egypt

Idealistic young Egyptian gets paid back with trial

Eager to help her country's transition after the revolution, a young Egyptian lawyer went to work promoting democracy. Now she finds herself on trial.

Two years ago, Egypt witnessed the start of an unprecedented uprising, which began as a series of mass demonstrations and ended with the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. In the aftermath of the uprising, many young Egyptians were eager to help their country transition to democracy. Two years later, they are realizing how difficult that process can be.

Though the charges she is facing are serious, there is something faintly ridiculous about the trial of 26-year-old Hafsa Halawa. It is evident in the way she tweets from court using the hashtag "grumpy defendant" and in her good-natured refusal to sit on the floor of the large, mesh cage to which she is confined during trial.

The story of how Halawa went from ambitious, young lawyer, eagerly working to help her country transition to democracy, to defendant number 28 in a high-profile felony trial, illustrates the challenges facing Egypt two years after the largely-peaceful uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak from power.

A rollercoaster ride

Even those frustrated by the country's bumpy progression toward democracy - and there are now many - would admit that there have been moments of great significance over the past two years. Egypt has held presidential and parliamentary elections, which observers deemed largely fair. A new constitution was approved by popular vote, and though it remains controversial the document includes protections for civil rights and freedom of expression.

Hafsa Halawa

Halawa's work has been on ice for over a year


But after decades of dictatorship, authoritarian values are ingrained in Egypt's judiciary and security forces. And perhaps no one knows that better than the funny, chatty, Halawa who yearned to march in Tahrir Square during the revolution but was forced to remain in England in order to finish graduate school.

"My revolution was on the phone with my parents here, freaking out about them and going to the Egyptian embassy in Britain," she says. But as she finished her law degree, Halawa returned to Egypt, excited to help in the transition to democracy. Her interest in politics lead her to an American non-governmental organization called the National Democratic Institute (NDI), where she got a job helping Egyptian political parties prepare for the country's first free parliamentary elections in November 2011.

"Everyone actually needed help with the same problems," Halawa says. "Even the old guard, when it was disbanded, regrouping in a post-revolution Egypt - it's been proven that it's a whole host of egos and lack of finance and lack of basic understanding. I always joke that this country's elites and its poor are politically illiterate."

Hafsa's job included training politicians in how to talk to the media and to their constituents.

Because NDI was working with political parties across the spectrum, from conservative Islamists to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood to liberals and socialists, Halawa didn't think her job was particularly controversial.

'Israeli spies'

But just a few weeks after the elections, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of more than a dozen NGOs - including NDI - seizing equipment and accusing employees of spying. While preparing for a work meeting in January 2012, Halawa was surrounded by police and army officers.

Thousands of Egyptian protesters attend a mass protest in Cairo's Tahrir square on November 24, 2011 (Photo: Landov)

Halawa observed the revolution from afar

"They started berating me and heckling me and screaming at me that I had damaged this country, that I was helping the 'Jewish, Israeli spies,' that I was a Zionist," she says. They were particularly infuriated when she showed them her national ID card, which identifies her as an Egyptian citizen.

The charges against the NGO workers were deceptively simple. Several of the organizations had skirted Egypt's byzantine registration system, which requires the approval of a number of government ministries, and which, some believed, was a way for Hosni Mubarak's administration to prevent civil society groups from doing their jobs. Even though NDI had been working in Egypt for years, employees were charged with receiving illegal funds in the form of their salaries.

Locals on trial

Nineteen American citizens were among those charged, and the raid quickly became an international incident, with some in the US Congress suggesting that aid to Egypt should be slashed. But when the Americans were allowed to leave the country - and all but one did - their Egyptian colleagues remained on trial.

And, though she has tried, Halawa is finding it difficult to move on with her life.

In this Dec. 29, 2011 file photo, workers from a non-governmental organization National Democratic Institute, or NDI, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo (Photo: :Mohammed Asad)

NGO employees' salaries have been dubbed illegal funds


"I'm angry because I've spent the last 13, 14 months now unable to work," Halawa says. "There is a stigma now attached to being from NDI, whereby NGOs refuse to hire me because I am on trial and it would cause problems for them with state security."

The NGO trial was recently postponed until March. Halawa says she's hopeful that she'll be acquitted. She has no regrets that the revolution took place and she believes that Egyptian youth will shepherd their country toward democracy. She just hopes the trial will end soon so she can get back to helping them.

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