IN DECEMBER 2011, Egypt’s transitional military government launched a crackdown on nongovernment organizations (NGOs), including several branches of U.S. groups, raiding their offices and bringing criminal charges against their staffs. When a judge finally rendered verdicts in the case Tuesday — sentencing 43 people, including at least 16 Americans, to prison terms — the generals were out of office. But it’s likely that the Islamist government that replaced them is pleased with an outcome that will shut down a swath of secular civil society.
The least harmed victims in the case are the American expatriates of groups such as Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, all but one of whom were allowed to leave the country last year. One, Robert Becker, remained behind until Tuesday; he left Egypt after receiving a two-year prison sentence. The bulk of the remaining defendants were Egyptians, many of them staffers of the U.S. groups or a German foundation, and could not leave. Some may go to jail — several sentences were suspended, and appeals are pending — and the organizations will be shuttered.
The crackdown was launched by holdovers from the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, who blamed NGOs for helping to lay the groundwork for the 2011 revolution and who justified the prosecutions with cheap nationalism and conspiracy theories. Banned under the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups were frequent victims of similar crackdowns. Yet, on coming to power last year, the Islamist movement did nothing to stop the prosecutions — and now it has proposed a new law for regulating nongovernment groups based on the same repressive and xenophobic logic.
The bill submitted by President Mohamed Morsi to an Islamist-dominated legislative body last week would place tight restrictions on Egyptian civic groups and even stronger controls on any foreign organizations that try to work in Egypt in the future. Registration of the foreign groups and all foreign funding would be under the control of a committee with a government-appointed majority, including members of the intelligence services. All NGO activities and fundraising would be subject to review. If the government objects to a study of gender equality or torture or a fundraising campaign for a women’s shelter, it can bring a court case against the work that would almost certainly block it. Egyptian human rights groups, which receive 95 percent of their funding from foreign sources, would be particularly affected.
The law has drawn a broad chorus of disapproval: from a coalition of Egyptian NGOs, who say it is worse than the Mubarak regime’s law; from international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which say it is at odds with the terms of treaties Egypt has ratified; and from the State Department, European Union and United Nations Human Rights representative. Yet Mr. Morsi’s government appears increasingly unwilling to heed advice or warnings from its domestic opponents or Western governments. Those governments retain leverage, including hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid pledged to the Morsi government by the Obama administration.
It’s essential that the United States show with actions as well as words that the suppression of Egypt’s civil society is unacceptable.
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