Q&A With an Egyptian Stuck in America

This is our Q&A about an Egyptian living in America. Click here for our Q&A with an American living in Egypt.

Mohammed El-Wakeel was one of the many of Egyptians watching the final show-down between now-deposed President Mohammed Morsi and the military, riding a wave of unprecedented civilian demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood ruling party:

But for El-Wakeel, who worked for the Alexandria office of the democracy advocacy NGO called the National Democratic Institute (NDI), those "most difficult 10 minutes" came at the end of a difficult 18 months: he was arrested for a crime he does not understand; ostracized as a Western spy; plastered across international media; and rushed onto a plane for his first-ever visit to the US, where he's been living in exile. Why? El-Wakeel was one of the 43 people prosecuted as part of the "NGO trial" in Egypt, during which Morsi's government went after NGOs accused of operating illegally in the country.

El-Wakeel's trial began at the height of tensions between the American government and the Morsi regime. As clashes continue in Egypt, El-Wakeel finds himself largely forgotten by the international media, and stuck in the United States indefinitely—convicted of a crime by a state that may or may not still exist.

We asked him to tell us his story.

Did you know the NGO was not registered?

Because our work was a little bit critical, I always had some fear, but I never asked whether we had registration to work or not. We always had messages with the regime, we were always in contact with the minister of foreign affairs, the office of international solidarity. They know what we’re doing, and it was like 'Don’t worry, everything is fine.'

What was the trial like?

After some back and forth, our lawyer said we were going to attend the trial, but it won’t be on camera. It will be in a closed room, that nothing would happen, it will be small and private.

When I walked in, It was like a circus. A billion gazillion cameras.

Wow.

And none of my [American coworkers] attended, which to be honest, really pissed me off.

Why not?

Because they were really afraid for the U.S. image. Putting a U.S. citizen inside the cage, on trial, they thought it would look really bad. So they decided not to attend. Their number one priority was to lift their traveling ban off of them and get them out of Egypt.

You have to stand inside the cage the whole trial. And when you enter into the cage all that’s guaranteed is that they’ll send you home or keep you in the court. So each and every time I entered, I didn’t know if I was coming out.

How many times did you go to the court?

Thirteen times. This is a whole very long process, it took us 18 months. Imagine your life is being postponed, each and everything you [plan] for the longterm is being postponed.

How did your community react?

People were afraid to talk to me. I remember calling someone and he said ‘Is your phone being tapped?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, probably,’ and he said ‘Don’t call me right now, don’t call me.’

Why?

The thing is, unfortunately in Egypt, our media is really unhealthy. It’s a filthy environment. They go for whatever will grab attention. And then, they showed what Morsi wanted to show. So at the time, it was, ‘They’re behind all the bad things that are happening in Egypt. Wouldn’t you like to see them convicted?’

What about the people you know?

My friends and family understood. But even some people I know, it was difficult. I remember I was standing in a store, and one of my dad’s friends was there buying a newspaper. I heard him say, 'Oh this is Mohamed. Oh my God, he sold himself, he sold himself to a demon!" And I was standing over there and I said: 'Really, that’s what happened?' And he said “Oh… oh… that’s not what I meant. But what has happened to you?”

One of the things on a personal level: I proposed to a girl, to marry her. And because of the case, and because of this, her dad refused.

And why did you ultimately decide to come to the U.S.?

It wasn’t planned at all for us to come to the U.S.. But then, a few weeks before the verdicts on June 4, our lawyers called us and said, ‘Guys, it would be much more preferred to be out of Egypt at this time.’ Because our case— from the beginning—was a politically motivated, politically affiliated case, they thought they might give us a huge sentence just to make the public OK.

NDI said, bring your passport to the embassy as fast as you can.

For political asylum?

I was planning on coming back to Egypt. I packed for 2 weeks. I have a small handbag, I wasn’t panning to live here. And now I’m here for 2 months.

I’m not seeking political asylum, because it is 5 years at least until you can go outside of U.S., or if you’re lucky enough and got regular citizenship, you can travel back to Egypt as an American citizen. There’s about a 1 percent chance of that happening.

How did the court rule?

What happened was a really shocking surprise for all of us. It was three categories. The Americans who travelled outside of Egypt and did not attend the court hearings, they got the maximum sentence. Heavy labor and jail. Five years. The [two Americans and foreigners] who attended the defense hearing, they got three years in jail. And the Egyptians got one year in jail, suspended for three years.

What's it been like to watch the protests in Egypt from afar?

I was really, really sad. Even my mom went. She’d never ever been to a protest before, she was always scared, [saying] ‘I’m going to stay at home’—she went during these protests. She told me, 'Mohamed, it’s indescribable.'

I have been to all the protests you can ever imagine in Egypt. I have attended a lot of protests even this year, despite people warning me, ‘Mohamed, do not go to this protest, you are a person on trial, if they recognize you they will capture you.’ Let them capture me, I’m not going to be afraid any more.

I went to the protest here in front of White House here, just to feel like I was part of something. It wasn't the same.

You have all of these masses of people on the streets protesting, but you said public opinion was against your trial. Do you think things will be different for you now?

[I hope] that later on they started changing their minds, in light of politics, of learning what’s been going on under the surface. That they start linking dots together, no no, this is not what happened. On some of the talk shows, they interviewed my friends, to tell people we know what’s going on.

How does this change your perspective on your work at NDI?

Egypt wants to to develop, we want to have early elections, to elect a really elected president, [who] has somehow a whole majority of the people accepting him. We need to have a Constitution that serves the welfare of the people, not only for a segment of people. I was on trial for political reasons, because it was a one man show. I am proof. The system was broken. I know it’s going to take a long time.

What’s your sense of how people are perceiving the protests here?

To be honest, it’s not surprising how people perceive things. The media in the U.S., for example CNN, is showing what the U.S. politicians would like to show to the people. What they’re saying is,'This is a military coup. This is a coup agains the legitimacy of the freely elected democratic president, and the Muslim Brotherhood should be given their time.'

We all know the U.S. was supporting their interests with Muslim Brotherhood. The thing the U.S. did not realize, is that they were supporting someone who’s really getting the country in a bad situation.

What do you think of the U.S. now that you're seeing it for the first time?

I have a very positive impression. I have made lots of kinds of friends, I didn't come here to be an introverted person and stay inside.

But it’s still hard because you miss the Egyptian flavor of friends. When I open my computer, the first thing that pops in chat, ‘When are you coming?’ And I say 'I really don’t know.'

In Egypt, it’s Ramadan, it’s the best time of the year. People wake up and they give you food, and there’s just a chaos to it. Here in the U.S., everyone is organized. You go for a jog, and go to work, and have your snacks and your brunches. In Egypt we don’t have that, we have a chaos, we have none of that.

What did you expect the U.S. would be like?

When I travelled here, a huge paradigm shift happened for me. I was so impressed by the culture, how people are educated, how clean and neat the city is, and how they respect each and everything, respect each other. I have this stereotype, that ‘Oh my name is Mohamed, people are going to stop me in the airport.’ But it didn’t happen. Nothing. People don’t care who are you. People treat you as a human being.

People think the U.S. is just what they see on Jerry Springer.

Their whole impression of the U.S. comes from Jerry Springer?

Pretty much. And some Fox news.

What happens now?

I always ask myself, what is the maximum worst thing that could happen? And the answer is, for now, if I am here with my new friends, and I start from scratch, well…

(Image: Michel Marcipont)