Financial Times: Egypt’s Conviction of Democracy Workers Likely to Ignite Fresh Tensions
Egypt’s NGO Ruling Set to Ignite Tensions with Donors
By Heba Saleh
An Egyptian criminal court has convicted 43 local and foreign employees of international democracy groups for illegally receiving funds from abroad to foment unrest in the country.
In a decision that is likely to ignite fresh tensions with western donors, the court sentenced 15 US citizens in their absence to five years in prison. Two German citizens also received jail terms.
The Cairo authorities had allowed most of the foreign defendants to leave the country last year following Egypt’s crackdown on democracy groups, after the US warned that the case imperilled its crucial $1.5bn aid package to Egypt Present in the court, however, was Robert Becker, a US citizen who received a two-year sentence and who had decided to stay in Egypt in solidarity with local democracy workers who are also on trial.
At least three Egyptians and a German still living in the country received two-year jails terms. Eleven other Egyptians received suspended sentences of one year.
The court ordered the closure and seizure of the offices and assets in Egypt belonging to US non-profit groups as well as one German organisation for which the defendants worked. These included the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, both funded by the US Congress, Freedom House, a centre for training journalists and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Neither the IRI nor the NDI had permission to operate in the country, but both said they presented the necessary documents to the foreign ministry some years ago, but received no response.
They pointed out that their presence and activities were tolerated and they were given official permission to observe parliamentary elections, which started in November 2011.
“As IRI has said since this assault against international and Egyptian non-governmental organisations began more than a year ago, this was not a ‘legitimate judicial process’ as claimed by Egyptian officials. This was a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt’s growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs. IRI will pursue all avenues to challenge today’s verdict,” an IRI spokesperson said.
The Egyptian authorities had been alarmed by a US initiative to pour millions of dollars into civil society groups working in the country after the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak as president.
Previously, US aid was only channelled to groups approved by the government.
“This was a politicised case about bilateral politics, but the message we take from it is that it is possible to actually imprison NGO workers,” said Heba al-Morayef, Egypt director of Human Rights Watch. “This is a very strong message that the government wants to control NGOs and it thinks it is fine to lock up their workers.”
The ruling comes a few days after the Egyptian authorities unveiled a draft law to govern the registration and operation of civil society groups, which has already been criticised by local and international organisations.
Although billed by aides to Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president as a liberal piece of legislation that will unshackle non-governmental groups, it has been condemned by Amnesty International as a “death blow” to civil society. The law requires a panel headed by a minister to approve the registration, foreign funding and activities of civil society groups.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign affairs representative, said on Sunday that she feared “that the draft law still contains elements that can unnecessarily constrain the work of NGOs in Egypt and hinder our capacity as a foreign donor to support their work”. She suggested it was not “in line with international standards and obligations of Egypt”.