A group of democracy activists, 16 of them US citizens, were sentenced to jail for their activities by an Egyptian court today.
But that's undoubtedly how today's verdict against 43 Egyptians and foreigners associated with international democracy NGOs is going to be seen by large swathes of the US Congress the next time they're asked to re-up Egypt's annual subsidy.
And it also captures the levels of hostility that the Muslim Brotherhood have directed at the sorts of independent organizations that could prove a challenge to their grip on power. While Egypt's judiciary is nominally independent, the Brotherhood has been pushing forward a new NGO law that activists say would gut the ability of watchdog groups to raise money.
The 46 people were given jail sentences stemming from their involvement with a group of democracy promotion NGOs, two primarily funded by the US State Department. All but one of the Americans were sentenced in absentia, having fled the country after weeks of hiding out in the US Embassy in a wink-and-a-nod deal made with the government of President Mohamed Morsi. The group that fled includes Sam LaHood, the son of President Obama's then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
In all, 13 Egyptians, one German, and one American stood trial, with the balance of those charged outside of the country and generally receiving heavier sentences.
Robert Becker, a National Democratic Institute (NDI) employee, was the lone American to stay behind, arguing that it was hypocritical to urge Egyptians to stand up for a better system and to turn tail at the first sign of trouble. NDI fired Mr. Becker for his decision, and today he was given a 2 year jail sentence.
His specific crime? "Forming an illegal NGO." There was only one problem; NDI had been active in Egypt since 2006, and Becker had been hired by the group in 2011. Ahead of sentencing today, he wrote on his blog that the prosecution felt politically motivated. "The government witnesses for the prosecution never focused their testimony on the actual charges against us, instead using their 15-minutes of 'fame' to complain about the United States."
NDI and the International Republican Institute (IRI) receive most of their funding from the US State Department and are most active in transitional states conducting seminars on political party organization and focusing on building institutions. The court ruled today that they be barred from work in Egypt, along with Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The message from Egypt under President Morsi is consistently one of distaste for the creation of a vibrant, independent civil society, hardly surprising given the majoritarian views of the Brothers, who have consistently insisted that their winning of the presidency last year entitles them to run Egypt without interference. US Secretary of State John Kerry assailed the verdict today as "contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy."
"Democracy" is indeed about far more than voting, and Egypt's government – like those in many other states – appears reluctant to have foreign money poured into efforts to make their political opponents stronger. While Egypt might hold regular, reasonably fair elections going forward, without civil society groups to create strong political alternatives to the Brotherhood and help reform the judiciary and reign in police torture and other abuses, it's unlikely to prosper or have an open society in any meaningful way.
IRI's statement on the verdict captures what's at stake:
As IRI has said since this assault against international and Egyptian nongovernmental organizations 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. Today’s ruling will have a chilling effect on Egyptian civil society and, taken with other recent developments, raises serious questions about Egypt’s commitment to the democratic transition that so many people demanded when they took to the streets in early 2011.