In a case that has sent a chill over Egypt's civil society, an Egyptian court convicted 43 nonprofit workers, including more than a dozen Americans, of illegally operating nongovernmental organizations and accepting unauthorized foreign funds, sentencing them to as many as five years in prison.
There are 15 Americans among the 27 people sentenced in absentia to five years in prison. The only American who remained in Egypt to face the charges, Robert Becker, was sentenced to two years in prison along with four others, including a dual Egyptian-American citizen and a German. Eleven others, mainly Egyptian employees of the organizations, were sentenced to one year in prison, but the sentence will be suspended. The court also ordered the closure of the Egypt offices of the five organizations involved.
Lawyers for the defendants will appeal the sentences. But the verdict, along with a recently proposed law to regulate NGOs that rights activists call highly restrictive, has activists and pro-democracy groups worried about increased government repression, especially of groups that document human rights abuses or work to build democracy.
“It's an indication of an even worse environment for civil society organizations in Egypt,” says Nancy Okail, who was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for her role as the Egypt director for the US-based Freedom House. “Since this whole ordeal started.... it's been consistent escalation. They're trying to crack down on anyone who's doing work for human rights and democracy.”
The verdict will also strain ties between Egypt and the United States. Seven of the Americans indicted were in Egypt when the charges were announced last year, bringing the deepest crisis in US-Egypt relations in decades, and were kept there under a travel ban. One of the accused was Sam LaHood, son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
As some of the Americans took refuge from potential arrest in the US embassy, US officials warned that the cases being brought against them could imperil the more than $1.2 billion in annual aid to Egypt. All of the Americans except Mr. Becker eventually left Egypt on a US-chartered plane after intense negotiations led to their travel bans being lifted and around $330,000 per person was paid in bail.
In a statement today, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US is "deeply concerned" about the verdict. He called the trial "politically motivated" and said, "This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy."
The US and rights activists have called it a politically motivated case from the beginning. Freedom House called the convictions a "disgrace," and the International Center for Journalists said it was "outrageous."
The case began with armed raids on democracy, development, and human rights organizations in December 2011. Security forces entered offices, prevented staff from leaving, and confiscated cash, equipment, and documents. By February 2012, authorities brought charges against employees of five organizations, including the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House.
All are pro-democracy organizations that receive funding from the US government's National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Authorities also brought charges against employees of the International Center for Journalists and the German NGO Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, which runs civic education programs.
At the time, Egypt was under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), a group of military generals who took over when former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Mr. Mubarak had long obstructed the work of civil society in Egypt, seeing such organizations as a threat. His government protested angrily when the US sent funds directly to NGOs, instead of routing them through the government.
US funding for pro-democracy NGOs increased after the uprising, but the SCAF generals appeared to also disapprove of such civil society groups. As the case unfolded, officials whipped up xenophobia and stoked public anger by implying that the defendants might be foreign spies and saying they were carrying out activities intended to destabilize Egypt, though the official charges were for operating organizations and receiving foreign funds without a license.
The organizations had applied for official permits to operate under Egypt's restrictive law regulating civil society. They did not receive an approval, but also were not rejected, though both IRI and NDI were suspended briefly in 2006. They all regularly communicated with Egyptian officials, and some had been working in Egypt for years.
Becker, who was fired by NDI after he chose to stay in Egypt and stand trial alongside his Egyptian colleagues, could not be reached after the verdict. In a message posted on Twitter, he wrote “Maintaining my innocence on charges of starting NGO six years before I actually arrived in Egypt & waiting for appeal strategy.” (Editor's Note: Leslie Campbell, NDI's Middle East and North Africa regional director, disputes the notion that Becker was fired in a written response to this article. The organization, he writes, offered to help find Becker alternative employment elsewhere because it no longer did work in Egypt, but Becker insisted on staying.)
The prospect of an American citizen, convicted for his work at an American-financed NGO, and serving time in an Egyptian prison, will likely heighten tensions between the US and Egypt once again, and will make the prospect of approving annual aid to Egypt even more contentious.
“This is going to make it extremely difficult for the United States government to engage with the Egyptian government and with Egypt more broadly on a range of issues where both sides have expressed strong interest in cooperation, like private sector development, like institutional reform,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs.
“There are all kinds of foreign assistance focused on economic development and social welfare that the US could provide in Egypt, but a lot of that would be implemented by NGOs, and in a climate like this it's going to be extremely difficult for the US to proceed with that kind of cooperation.”
Rights advocates cast the case as part of a crackdown on civil society that extends beyond the courtroom. Since the uprising, many NGOs have been starved for cash as the government shut down the pipeline for foreign funds, which are critical in Egypt because local support is low. Some organizations have laid off staff, and others are unable to run programs because the government refuses to approve grants.
Meanwhile, the upper house of parliament, currently endowed with legislative authority, is discussing a new law to regulate civil society and replace the restrictive Mubarak-era law. But the first proposed drafts elicited an uproar from Egyptian civil society, the United Nations, and Western governments, and Egyptian activists said they were as restrictive, if not more so, than the Mubarak-era law.
The president proposed a new law last week, which presidential advisers said would address their concerns. While rights advocates said there were minor improvements, they also said it does not meet international standards, would allow for government interference in internal affairs of NGOs, and would allow the government to restrict NGO funding.
Bahey el din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says he believes the new NGO law was released around the time of the NGO trial verdict “to use the discussion and deliberations about the whole case,… to align the public to accept such very repressive NGO law.”
The verdict, he says, “is just one stop in the process which started almost 18 months ago … an orchestrated campaign to repay civil society for its role in the Jan. 25 revolution.”
Ms. Okail called the verdict a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Egypt.
“I used to live in England,” she said. “When the revolution happened, I went back to Egypt to work in human rights and democracy, and I was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, while the police officers accused of killing the protesters all got acquitted. I can't say anything more than that.”