A former U.S. envoy to Cairo today called for a “time out” in funding for pro-democracy non-governmental groups supporting Egypt’s transition.
Funding for Egyptian civil society groups is “unwise” during a time of political upheaval, former diplomat Frank G. Wisner told the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank.
“Do we want to be busy on the ground with U.S.-funded political organizations in a period of disruptions?” Wisner asked. “This is a moment for a time-out in active use of U.S. institutions in Egyptian politics.”
The Obama administration needs to “manage the NGO problem” by trying to “get it down below the radar,” he said.
The case will resume next month to allow government officials to testify, but the proceedings will be closed to the media. Prosecution witnesses are expected to include Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abolnaga, the instigator of the prosecution, who will address the court starting July 4, said Rawda Saeed, one of the defendants.
An Egyptian-American defendant who returned to face trial appeared at the court in handcuffs, but the court ordered Sherif Mansour, a former Freedom House employee, to be freed until the verdict.
“Despite the mass mobilization of people during the revolution, Egyptian civil society is on tenuous ground: legislation proposed in February threatens, essentially, to put civil society under state control,” notes Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Moreover, many Egyptians complain that all the focus has been on Western aid to liberal groups, but little attention has been paid to funds from Gulf countries given to Islamist groups. There is much speculation that these funds dwarf in size what has gone to the liberal groups.”
The Obama administration this week denounced the trial as “politically motivated.”
Egyptian authorities should “stop trying these individuals and instead resolve any outstanding issues that they may have on this matter in a government-to-government basis,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toney. The U.S. would continue to work with civil society as “an important component to a successful democratic transition for Egypt.”
The prosecution began when security forces raided the offices of pro-democracy and civil society groups, including several indigenous NGOs, and the US-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and International Center for Journalists, as well as the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Egyptian officials said the NGOs were suspected of using foreign funds to commit espionage and foment unrest.
The charges are at odds with the comments of Ambassador Sameh Shukry, Egypt’s envoy to the US, who recently said the NGOs had a “benevolent impact” on civil society and the country’s transition.
The prosecution is part of a broader crackdown on civil society in Egypt, says Robert Becker, a former official with NDI.
If the case is lost, “the long-term impact is, citizens are afraid to organize at the community level,” he says. “If that’s the case, then democracy won’t work. If we go down, that’s when the floodgates could open and they all go down.”
He came to Egypt in June 2011 to work with NDI, training political parties for the first free and fair elections in Egypt in half a century. All political parties now in Egypt’s parliament, including the Muslim Brotherhood‘s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultraconservative Islamist Nour Party, participated in NDI’s training. Workshops included advice on how to run a campaign, how to conduct media relations, and how to manage constituent services once elected….
NDI is paying the Egyptian employees’ salary and legal defense fees for all including Becker, throughout the trial. “If they ended up in jail and I was safe in the US, I wouldn’t be able to live with that,” says Becker. He is prepared to face jail time if convicted, but says he has faith that the truth will win out.
Mansour agrees that the case has wider political ramifications.
“This is an extraordinary case and it needs an extraordinary fight. It needs to be fought to the end,” he said. “I think it’s going to have a lot of impact on the role of civil society in Egypt. And I think that civil society will continue to be a key component in Egypt’s transition.”
Independent observers and government officials concede that the provision of democracy assistance could have been better managed by the administration, while noting that authoritarian actors – including former regime elements and the Muslim Brotherhood – exploited the issue to promote xenophobic attitudes and undermine Egypt’s emerging democratic forces.
“The problem was that when the revolution in Egypt took off, all kinds of sensitivities came roaring to the surface,” Wisner said earlier this week. “And in the roiled waters, anyone who was around playing in Egyptian politics ran risks. I think our friends and the U.S. government did not appreciate the extent of those risks and weren’t prepared to deal with them.”
The Project for Middle East Democracy, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, adds:
Sherif Mansour Arrested, NGO Trial Postponed
The Cairo Criminal Court postponed a hearing in the NGO case that began earlier this year in which several prominent civil society organizations were accused of illegally accepting foreign funds. Sherif Mansour, who was arrested yesterday on his returned to Cairo to be tried, was charged along with 43 others of receiving approximately $60 million and operating without a license. The hearing was postponed to hear witnesses’ testimony in the case and to receive files requested from the ministries of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
“Foreign Funding Trial Postponed to Hear Witnesses”, Al Masry Al Youm (Arabic) 6/5/2012. “Release of Last American in Funding Case”, Al Wafd (Arabic) 6/5/2012. “Arrest of Regional Director of Freedom House at the Airport El Shorouk”, (Arabic) 6/5/2012. “Defense witnesses can give testimony in next NGO trial session, court rules” Egypt Independent (English), 6/5/2012.