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Egypt: NGO prison sentences send chill through civil society

Civil society organizations are being restricted and targeted in the post-Mubarak era.

CAIRO, Egypt — An Egyptian court’s ruling that 43 NGO staffers, including 16 Americans, be sentenced to up to five years in prison for using foreign funding to foment unrest is raising fears about the future of pro-democracy and human rights organizations operating here.

The sentences were delivered on the same day that Egypt’s Shura Council, or upper house of parliament, began deliberating a draft law that, critics believe, will severely constrain NGO activities.

Both the court verdict and the draft law are lending credence to a growing chorus of voices that say civil society organizations are being restricted and targeted in the post-Mubarak era.

“This verdict will effectively close the space for Egyptian civil society to work for change in a constructive and nonviolent way,” Huguette Labelle, chair of Transparency International, said in a statement. “Egypt risks recreating the climate of intimidation that existed before the 2011 revolution and that prevented citizens from holding public officials accountable.”

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Both American and European officials swiftly condemned Tuesday’s verdict. US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “deeply concerned” by the sentences, calling the trial “politically motivated.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described his government as “outraged” by the court’s decision.

The defendants, who were arrested in Cairo after armed police raids on 17 NGO offices in December 2011, were accused of working for organizations that operated illegally in Egypt and used foreign funding to foment unrest in the wake of the country’s revolution.

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The raids inflamed an ongoing dispute between Egyptian and US government officials, and the subsequent spectacle of American NGO workers being tried from the confines of an iron cage quickly soured bilateral relations and temporarily jeopardized the US’ annual aid package of more than $1.5 billion.

Defense lawyers for the staffers had argued that although the organizations had not received formal approval from the Egyptian government — a legal requirement for NGOs working in Egypt — their activities had been well-known by the authorities.

In the case of one organization, the US-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), it had even received official sanctioning to monitor the country’s first democratic elections.

But under the new law, debated by a legislative body dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), all civil society groups will require state permission before they can receive funding from domestic or international donors. Anyone who violates this measure will face a hefty fine.

The draft, submitted by the office of President Mohamed Morsi last week, stipulates that a “steering committee” oversees the affairs of civil society groups. This is expected to include members of the security services, as had been explicitly detailed in previous drafts.

In a televised address last week, Morsi said that the bill “enables civil society to be assured that the state will not […] restrict civil society organizations that work in the service of the sons of the nation.” 

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But human rights groups have slammed this reasoning, instead arguing that the legislation reflects government desires to tighten control over civil society and dictate the direction in which its efforts are channeled.

“If they pass the law in its current form,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International, “the Egyptian authorities would send a message that little has changed since the Mubarak era, which the authorities restricted independent human rights organizations to stop them from exposing abuses.”

According to Heba Morayef, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch, the restrictions, championed by an Islamist president, could also strangle funding to groups working on social issues across the country.

“The bill would allow the government to make arbitrary political decisions on what sort of work is and isn’t funded,” she said. “They could turn down funding for women’s organizations. They could also prevent money going to groups that work on controversial issues like early marriage.”

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In private, Western diplomats say they had lobbied to encourage an NGO law that supported, rather than restricted, the activities of civil society. But the draft that emerged, they say, is now a cause for concern.

However, members of the ruling party argue that restrictions on foreign funding are necessary. Essam El Erian, vice chairman of FJP, argues that international money gives an unfair advantage to a small group of organizations with specific political agendas. 

In the early months of the NGO trial, the FJP had made a similar argument, stating that it backed NGOs that “serve the interests of the homeland” but rejected those which favoured “foreign policies and goals.” 

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“We have more than 40,000 NGOs acting in Egypt today,” El Erian said in an interview with GlobalPost. “And it is the handful of organizations that receive foreign funding that have the loudest voice.”

El Erian says that foreign funding is being used to change Egypt’s political trajectory, and argues that this contradicts Western government statements on the need to support the transition to democracy.

“In a democratic country, you must be with the elected people,” he said.

But defendants in Tuesday’s NGO trial argue that it is this attempt to define what civil society should and shouldn’t do that is now proving one of the biggest obstacles to its work.

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According to Hafsa Halawa, a former NDI employee who was Tuesday sentenced to two years in prison, the government have successfully painted NGOs, especially those that receive foreign funding, as a destabilizing threat to the country and its revolution.

“The Egyptian people have not been given the chance to understand what civil society means and what it can do for them,” she told GlobalPost. “Do they know that they need civil society to guarantee their rights as citizens, to find their parliamentarian, to help them in their own lobbying efforts?”

Following the arrests, seven of the American defendants spent weeks holed up in Cairo’s US embassy. All but one — including Sam LaHood, son of the US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — left the country shortly afterwards. Hours before yesterday’s verdict, Robert Becker, the last American defendant in Cairo, left the country. 

For now, defenders of civil society remain deeply concerned about the future of their work in Egypt.

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“When the Muslim Brotherhood took power, they internalized the concerns of the country’s security agencies,” Morayef of Human Rights Watch said. “The new NGO law looks like it will take on all the paranoia about foreign funding that we saw in the NGO trial investigation.”