ICFJ’s Joyce Barnathan Looks at Egypt’s Conviction of NGO Workers

When will U.S. speak in defense of NGOs?
USA Today
By Joyce Barnathan

The non-governmental organization can get into a trouble spot quickly, marshaling expertise and targeting aid as no government can. When a disaster hits the United States, we don’t send donations to Federal Emergency Management Agency, we give to the American Red Cross or a local group that can instantly go to work where it’s needed.

When a democratic revolution hits Egypt, who is most qualified to go in? Certainly the list should include groups that build the pillars of a democracy such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists, which I head.

When powerful factions in a divided Egyptian government turn on these American groups, put them through an 18-month show trial and impose prison sentences on U.S. citizens, what does that mean for the Americans and Egyptians affected? And what does it mean for NGOs operating on the frontiers of change around the world?

What’s the proper response of a Washington government that says it supports democratic change in Egypt and financed the work of every one of these NGOs in particular?

Let’s hope we see that response soon, because so far Washington’s muted reaction is deafening. We’ve heard only silence from President Obama. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “deeply concerned” as he wrote the chaotic Egyptian government another fat check. The U.S. response has been a far cry from the “outrage” expressed by the German government, whose Konrad Adenauer Foundation also was targeted in the crackdown. Thus far, only the House subcommittee on Foreign Affairs, led by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., has held hearings on the Egyptian verdicts. Fifty-four congressmen sent a letter of protest — as did 14 senators. Job done?

Tell that to the 43 Americans, Egyptians, Europeans and others “convicted” by the kangaroo court for working in Egypt illegally. They wanted to help Egypt build a new civil society after the Hosni Mubarak years — and now all are branded as felons, some facing five years of hard labor in an Egyptian prison if they ever go near the place again.

This decision has ruined lives. What do you say to a distinguished journalist such as Yehia Ghanem, whom we hired to launch our program? Ghanem, who was in Washington when the decision came down, got a two-year sentence and cannot return home to his wife and three children. During the trial, someone spat in his face on the subway, calling him a traitor. The authorities leaked his home address — and thugs showed up to intimidate his family. Worst of all, one of his kids came home with two broken arms after a fight in which he defended his dad’s honor.

What’s going on here? As NGOs, we are pawns, easy targets for the Egyptian officials who can trash us as surrogates for Washington rather than taking on the U.S. directly. And trashing U.S.-funded NGOs is, of course, good politics in parts of Egypt. The country’s minister of International Cooperation, for one, was angered by a U.S. decision to give funds directly to NGOs instead of to her ministry. What better way to show her cred than by cracking down on U.S. aid groups?

My organization has run programs in Egypt with full knowledge of the government since 2005. As journalists, we took no political positions. The Egyptian journalists we assisted appreciated our work and asked for more. We were dumbfounded when our Cairo office was raided and our employees indicted.

This has worked out great for the Egyptian enemies of civil society. They get to look like the toughest anti-Americans in town, and maybe embarrass the Mohammed Morsi government — all while cashing those U.S. aid checks.

How can the U.S. government let decent American citizens be labeled convicts in a bogus trial? Can they now go abroad without fear of extradition? If your country doesn’t stand up for you, would any American want to work for a program backed by the U.S. government?

What message do we send to people in other countries who are eager to help build civil societies by working for U.S. NGOs? That we will abandon them? What does this say about U.S. credibility in the Middle East? This is a major setback to U.S. and European efforts to help fulfill the promises of the Arab Spring.

To use an Obama expression, the administration cannot kick this can down the road. We need the Egyptian President to issue a pardon. Or we need the Egyptians to pass a retroactive NGO law that would make it impossible to convict employees for doing the work that they were invited to do by Washington and Egyptian groups alike.

The Egyptians will respond only to intense political pressure. The U.S., German and other Western governments — and militaries — can exert this pressure. The pawns can’t. All we can do is call for our government to stand behind us. If Washington shrugs off this case — not to mention its responsibility to American citizens and Egyptian allies — then it will be dealing with the consequences of this judicial mockery for years to come.

Joyce Barnathan is the president of the International Center for Journalists.

Up ArrowTop