Sherif Mansour heads to the airport on Saturday. There is a cage in an Egyptian courtroom waiting for him in Cairo.
Anyone at Washington’s Dulles airport wouldn’t know the 32-year-old Egyptian, who recently became an American citizen, is wanted as a fugitive in Cairo just by looking at him. Clean cut, with a bright checkered shirt tucked into khaki pants, Mansour just days ago was swiping his card to accrue points at Yola yogurt bar in Dupont Circle, near the Washington office of Freedom House, where he worked for five years until this week. He is more than halfway toward winning a “parfait party,” during which the café delivers frozen treats.
But the former senior officer for Freedom House’s Middle East and North Africa programs won’t win this prize anytime soon. Mansour is putting his life on hold to return to Egypt to fight charges of illegally operating pro-democracy programs and stirring unrest.
Mansour, who is due to appear in court on Tuesday, believes the charges against him and 42 other workers from U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations are politically motivated and without legal merit. The Obama administration agrees. But if convicted, he could face up to six years in an Egyptian prison.
Accused American NGO workers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute—including Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—paid $5 million in bail and left Egypt in March after being prevented from leaving the country for more than a month. Their impending trial threatened the worst crisis between Washington and Cairo in decades, and the highly publicized exodus led many Egyptians to believe the NGO workers were guilty, Mansour said.
“That’s what sticks in people’s minds: That they’ve been doing something wrong, that’s why they escaped, and that’s why they are not challenging [the charges],” Mansour, who was not in Egypt when the charges were announced, said. “It makes sense. Why wouldn’t you stand by what you’re doing? We know it’s a fake trial. It’s a political case. But there have been so many political cases in Egypt after the revolution. But people fought it—and they won.”
Having appeared in person to try to register Freedom House’s operations in Egypt, Mansour believes he has done everything possible to win accreditation and the group is operating according to the law.
Mansour says he was indicted before being granted an appearance in court. “My name is ‘Fugitive Sherif Mansour,’ ” he said. “I was never asked to appear in front of any judge. I was never asked or investigated for anything in this case. I was never even served papers to say, ‘You should be coming to trial.’ ” There is still a chance, he said, to refute the charges through the Egyptian judicial system and explain his views to the media.
His planned return to Cairo against Freedom House’s wishes cost Mansour his job. The organization warned Mansour that his presence could inflame the situation. But he feels pressure to return because he is a prominent human-rights defender—and many local workers on trial are accountants or translators.
“It’s not fair to them that they have to lead the battle from within,” Mansour said. “[Appearing in court] should be a part of everyone’s job if they are working for freedom and democracy and human rights. But there are a lot of risks involved, and I understand why organizations cover their bases.”
For months, Mansour has been adamant about his desire to return, penning a February op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine calling for Washington to “stop subsidizing repression” in Egypt with taxpayer money and take a moral stand. “Leverage is useless if one chooses not to use it,” the graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University wrote at the time.
Mansour was disappointed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s March 23 decision to waive new congressional conditions linking military aid to human rights and due process in Egypt. Days after Clinton signed off on $1.3 billion in aid, Egypt ramped up the prosecution by requesting that Interpol issue worldwide notices for the arrests of other NGO workers—12 of them Americans, including Mansour—who were not in the country. Interpol eventually dismissed Egypt’s request as politically motivated, but Mansour refuses to be sentenced in absentia while working from the “luxury” of his Washington office.
“The charges against him—just as the charges against all others in this case—are in our view spurious. And the charges should be dropped against all 43 people, because none of them has done anything wrong,” said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. “My hope is that the hearing on June 5 will be procedural in nature and that this will quietly go away.”
After waiting for the U.S. “to work its magic” with its Egyptian allies, Mansour is frustrated: “The more I wait, the more liable I become, the more I feel like I’m not doing my job.” Despite hopes by some in Washington that the case will simply “fizzle away,” he said, “nothing happens quietly in Egypt. You have to defend it to win it.”
This mentality is not surprising given Mansour’s background. A 10-year career advocate for human rights, he moved to the U.S. in 2006 seeking political asylum, having been subjected to security interrogations and other harassment by then-President Hosni Mubarak’s government after leading a national coalition of NGOs to monitor the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Mansour’s American wife, who hails from Iran, understands his desire to return. So does his father, a prominent human rights defender who also came to the U.S. seeking political asylum. But they’re not exactly happy about it, and Mansour’s Facebook page is peppered with comments from friends wishing him the best of luck and promising to keep him in their prayers.
Mansour, however, considers potential jail time a small price to pay to support the goal of an independent Egyptian civil society. With some 400 NGOs targeted for investigation, local groups worry for their future in Egypt, he said. “If they get us, they’ll get the rest.”