Boston Globe Calls for Egypt to Drop Charges Against Democracy Workers

Egypt must drop charges against US, Egyptian democracy workers
The Boston Globe

ONE YEAR after Egyptians launched a mass protest that brought down Hosni Mubarak, the cadre of Egyptian military officials who retain control of the country has cracked down on civil society more harshly than Mubarak ever did. Egypt’s announcement that it will file criminal charges against 19 Americans — as well as dozens of other foreigners and Egyptians — involved in elections monitoring and democracy and journalism training is a deeply worrisome sign.

The charges are based on the bogus claim that the American groups have been operating without licenses. In reality, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House have operated openly in Egypt for many years with the tacit acceptance of the government. They filed their paperwork for a license, but never received a response. These groups are being targeted because their trainings will empower Western-leaning Egyptians who want to see the military step down from power. Apparently, the Egyptian military has chosen to try to cling to power by whipping up nationalist sentiment against these US-funded groups.

Much of the news coverage of the charges has focused on the audacity of Egypt’s attempt to prosecute Americans. Indeed, Egypt is sending a dangerous message that it is willing to throw away its crucial alliance with the United States, especially when one of the people it seeks to prosecute is Sam LaHood, son of the US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. But no one – not even the Egyptian generals – imagines that an American will serve time in an Egyptian prison for these charges. Most of the people on the target list are not even in Egypt. Far more worrisome is the fate that awaits the Egyptians who having been receiving US funding or otherwise cooperating with pro-democracy groups. State-run media in Egypt have been escalating their attacks for on Egyptian NGOs for months, accusing them of being puppets of Americans bent on “undermining the revolution.’’

In targeting Americans and those who work with Americans, Egypt’s military brass seems to be betting that we need them more than they need us. It’s true that Egypt gives the US military the right to fly over Egypt and sail boats through the Suez Canal. Egypt also honors its peace treaty with Israel. But the United States does not come to this partnership empty-handed. US taxpayers provide an estimated 25 percent of Egypt’s military budget and a crucial voice of support when Egypt applies for loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Egypt’s recent behavior has understandably fueled calls for Congress to cut off the aid spigot. The Egyptian military should reconsider its course, not for the sake of the United States, but for the sake of Egypt, which cannot develop a functional democracy without a civil society. And the Obama administration and the US Congress, led on this issue by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, should make it clear to Egypt how costly its current course of action could be for all involved.

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