Thursday, June 6, 2013

Egypt: Update--Cairo's Prison Sentences for NGOs Should Be a Wake-Up Call for the West

According to The Associated Press, the international NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations) community was dealt a deadly blow on Tuesday (June 4) when an Egyptian court sentenced 43 NGO workers, including the son of the US secretary of transportation and 15 other Americans, to prison in a case against foreign-funded pro-democracy groups.

The ruling and excessive jail time of up to five years raises serious concern over the operations of non-governmental organizations in Egypt as Parliament considers a bill proposed by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi that critics warn will profoundly restrict the activities of international NGOs in the future.

The verdict was strongly denounced by the US, with Secretary of State John Kerry and a host of powerful lawmakers expressing their outrage and berating the trial and the verdict as politically motivated and incompatible with Egypt's transition to democratic rule.

The defendants were convicted on charges of receiving foreign funds to foster unrest in Egypt. The charges were rooted in claims that the NGOs, which were working in various forms of democracy training, were fueling protests in 2011 against the military, which took power after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February of that year.

The verdict also ordered the closure of the offices and seizure of the assets in Egypt belonging to the US and German NGOs organization for which many of the defendants worked, including the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a center for training journalists, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Of the 43 defendants, 27 received five-year jail terms. Another five received two years while eleven, all of them Egyptian, received suspended one-year sentences. 

Three senior Republican senators, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte warned that if the sentences withstand appeal, the verdict will have "significant negative implications" for Washington's relations with Cairo. 

The US reaction was very bi-partisan with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) making a similar threat in a separate statement, saying the verdict will have a "serious impact" on relations with Egypt. "I call upon the Egyptian authorities to immediately review and overturn this misguided decision," he said in a statement.

COMMENT: As I have said in the past, both President Obama and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton stood idly by and said nothing as the Egyptian Revolution unfolded in 2011. Moreover, neither Obama or Clinton demonstrated any loyalty whatsoever to ousted former President Hosni Mubarak who fully supported the West for nearly three decades by maintaining a secular Egypt, combating terrorism, keeping Islamic radicalism in check and promoting Egypt as a major tourism destination.

Despite the fact that the government of President Mohamed Morsi has been the recipient of virtually NO consequences as a result of its hostile conduct, despite the US providing $1.3 billion in US military aid and $250 million in economic aid every year since 1979, can only be described as an outrage and a slap in the face of every US taxpayer.

Germany, one of Egypt's biggest donors and trade partners, was also angered by the verdict. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the ruling "troubling" and said it weakens civil society, "which is an important pillar of democracy in the new democratic Egypt,” although use of such a quote is hardly appropriate.

Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, said she was baffled by the conviction. "Everyone knew it was a politicized trial and the judge could have had a way out if he suspended everyone's sentence," she said. "The trial, in some ways, reflects the paranoia that is in the president's draft law for NGOs.”

The crackdown against the nonprofit groups began in late December 2011, when Egyptian security raided offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups. The 43 NGO workers, including the 16 Americans, were then charged with using illegal funds and promoting protests against the then-ruling military. The groups strongly denied the charges.

Now, apart from this overly lengthy description of the facts, the real heart of my question for the US and German governments is what economic consequences do they have in mind for Mohamed Morsi?

The reason I raise this question is largely because if there are no consequences for the Egyptian government, in any form, Egypt’s extensive anti-West track record means that both Berlin and Washington are naïve, very short on backbone and devoid of being consistent with a hostile country that is vitally in need of a real lesson-learned.

A final thought. Sadly, the only reality that Islamist nations fully understand are consequences. A good start would be hitting them in the pocketbook as an attention-gainer.