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Civil Society

U.S. Denounces Egyptian NGO Trial Results

WASHINGTON, Jun 5 2013 (IPS) - President Barack Obama’s administration and several major rights groups are reacting with frustration to the decision of an Egyptian court, announced Tuesday night, to convict 43 civil society organisations and 16 U.S. employees of illegal use of foreign funds.

Reactions by both the administration and members of the U.S. Congress are implying that the U.S. government may withhold an annual allotment of some 1.3 billion dollars in military aid to Egypt unless the U.S. accused are pardoned.

“We were in the process of seeking registration at the time of the original raid – we were trying to comply with Egyptian law." -- Charles Dunne of Freedom House

“This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday. “I urge the government of Egypt to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution.”

The decision was followed by an order to close the Egyptian offices of five U.S.-based NGOs, including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and the International Center for Journalists. Some from these groups are criticising the U.S. response for being too weak.

Kerry’s statement “could have certainly been stronger,” Charles Dunne, the director of Middle East and North African programmes at Freedom House, told IPS. “It called on the Egyptian government to work with civil society organisations in the midst of a campaign to destroy civil society, which is not the right tone to be striking.”

Tuesday’s verdicts originated from the December 2011 crackdown on NGOs as issued by Egypt’s transitional military government. According to some analysts, holdovers from longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime held civil society groups responsible for helping to start the 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak.

During the crackdown, NGO offices were raided and criminal charges were brought against personnel.

More recently, President Mohamed Morsi has proposed a new law for regulating NGOs that would require the registration of foreign-funded groups with a committee that includes a government-appointed majority. Dunne condemned the law, calling it the “the most oppressive out there right now”.

Others have expressed similar concerns.

“If this bill passes, all of Egypt’s NGOs would essentially work under the government,” Hafez Abu Seada, chairman of the non-profit Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, told IPS. “We would operate not as independents but as agents for the state.”

The proposed law received criticism from Egyptian NGOs, who say it would be stronger than Mubarak’s requirements, as well as from international groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Both groups say the law contradicts the terms of international treaties Egypt has ratified.

Quasi-government endowment

All but one of the U.S. defendants in the court case decided Tuesday, Robert Becker, a former employee of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), left Egypt before the trial was held, after posting bail. According to media reports, Becker was fired by the NDI after his decision to stay in Egypt.

“Personally, I will once again ignore my lawyer’s advice and will be in Egypt,” Becker wrote on his blog. “I was told it would be best for me to go home, so that is exactly where I will be … home, in Cairo.”

Eleven hours after the verdict was announced, Becker again wrote via Twitter that he had “unwillingly and angrily gone into exile until appeals get sorted out.”

If one looks at the history of several of the groups indicted under the new court decision, it is perhaps unsurprising that today’s Egyptian government would be sceptical of these groups’ goals. Four are connected with a quasi-government programme called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

During the Cold War, U.S intelligence agents set up several fake foundations through which they gave money to anti-communist or at least non-communist groups. During the 1980s, the government set up the National Endowment for Democracy to take the place of these various groups.

Over the years, several countries, including, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica and Czechoslovakia, have complained about interference in national elections by the National Endowment for Democracy. In 2012, Congress gave the group around 118 million dollars.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) make up the endowment’s core constituents, while Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists received funding from the endowment.

According to CQ Roll Call, a Washington newspaper, the IRI has been accused of attempting to choose winners and losers in elections in Haiti and several countries in South America, though the organisation has denied this.

Though several of these NGOs have denied any wrongdoing, defendants received anywhere from one and five years in prison. Egyptian lawyer Khaled Abo Bakr, not involved in this case, said those defendants who did not receive suspended sentences would have to go to prison before they could appeal, and defendants returning to Egypt would be arrested upon arrival.

According to Freedom House’s Dunne, the court decision was political, and not the result of a legitimate judicial proceeding.

“We were in the process of seeking registration at the time of the original raid – we were trying to comply with Egyptian law,” he said. “This has to be resolved politically, and that’s going to require involvement at the highest level of U.S. government.”

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