Home inContext Egyptian Court Sentences Employees of Western NGOs

Egyptian Court Sentences Employees of Western NGOs

Beth Kanopsic

A Cairo court convicted 43 non-governmental organization (NGO) employees of inciting unrest in Egypt. Government prosecutors brought charges against sixteen Americans, along with a number of Europeans and Egyptians, with 27 of the activists being charged in absentia. Ten months after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Egyptian police raided several NGOs as part of an investigation into their finances. Authorities accused the pro-democracy groups of working unlawfully within Egypt and receiving illegal funding from abroad. Well respected Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), were forced to close in what is being called “a war against Egypt’s growing civil society.”

The court sentenced 27 of the defendants to five years in prison with another five defendants receiving two-year terms. Robert Becker remained in Egypt for the verdict, the only American to appear in court. He stayed despite his employer, NDI, paying $330,000 in bail, allowing him to leave the country. Becker explained that he wanted to show solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues, NDI subsequently terminated his employment. After the court read the verdict he boarded a plane to Rome at the urging of his legal council. The defendants are expected to appeal their convictions.

American Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute leaves the defendants’ cage after a hearing in the trial of employees of nonprofit groups in Cairo, Egypt on March 8, 2012. (Photo: AP)

Western government and NGOs continued to monitor the trial and suggested the verdict could have negative repercussions for Egyptians. Freedom House President David Kramer called the case “a disgrace from the very beginning, and the verdict makes a mockery of the Egyptian judicial process.” Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, expressed concern over the conviction of two employees working with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The trial also strained Washington’s relationship with Cairo. Some U.S. officials hinted that some of the $1.5 billion in direct aid to Egypt could be jeopardized.

President Mohamed Morsi has submitted a bill to parliament that would curtail the NGOs ability to operate in Egypt, compounding the challenges to civil society groups. The Egyptian authorities’ targeting of pro-democracy NGOs highlights the failure of the 2011 revolutions to bring meaningful civil rights to the Arab world’s most populous nation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accurately describes the recent court proceedings as “incompatible with Egypt’s transition to democracy.” Indeed, Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist controlled government will likely continue to use its power to target liberal opponents inside the country.