They are a testament to their nations – but their nation’s representatives, I am not so sure. Those who have been convicted in the recent NGOs trial in Egypt have reminded Egyptians, Europeans and Americans alike that there are opportunities for people to display bravery and principle – and for others to display, let us say, more base qualities of the human spirit. One group will bring pride to their compatriots of various countries – the others, embarrassment and shame.
There will continue to be debate in some Egyptian quarters as to whether or not those who stood trial actually broke the law. Out of a sense of misguided, populist patriotism, they will feel an obligation to vilify those who stood on trial, and excuse that Egyptian institution of the judiciary for valiantly upholding the law. But this is not simply missing the mark – it is a wilful distortion of the facts.
That debate cannot take place unless one distinguishes, clearly and distinctly, between the foreign NGOs that were working in Egypt and the staff that worked with them here. One could (and I am not sure I would) argue that the NGOs themselves, in terms of the leaderships abroad, should have been held responsible for (and I am not sure I would say this) not staying within the rules. That is probably the most one can say – but one cannot extend from that to insist that imprisonment of anyone ought to have been given prison sentences, even if guilty. Moreover, how can it possibly be considered as appropriate for any sentence to come upon the shoulders of employees? One of these employees joined one of the NGOs literally two weeks before the government decided to raid the offices – and is now facing a prison sentence.
No, let us be honest about this case – it is not a legal case. It is a political one. It has been politicized from day one – and no one can argue otherwise. At every step of the way, the facts of the case have been wound up with populist suspicion in the media of foreign funding of non-governmental organizations. Meanwhile, the military receives billions of dollars from the United States, different religious groups get other financial support from the Gulf, and the Egyptian government receives aid for all sorts of technical projects from various countries from around the world. Indeed, the only reason why the state has not actually fallen into total bankruptcy is because of foreign money.
Who is to blame for it? Well, there are certainly different levels of responsibility one can point to. The first level: the military government that allowed this to happen in the first place. The investigation started under the SCAF regime that followed Mubarak – and it then snowballed. There was never any need for it, and it could have been very easily and quietly dealt with, without any loss of face for any of the parties involved.
The second level: the Muslim Brotherhood. As the largest political force in the country, it could have easily reduced the temperature by sending out responsible messages, if only to encourage the case to proceed on the basis of the facts, as opposed to encouraging populist discontent. They’re not responsible for the verdict – the judge is not an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood – but they could have done more to encourage a just atmosphere within which a verdict could have taken place. Indeed, they’ve gone further than that, by pushing forward a draft NGO law that is even more problematic than the one on the books from the Mubarak era. If President Mursi wants to fix this, he is, yet again, able to do so – by pardoning the defendants, and amending the NGO law in line with Egypt’s international commitments – but it’s dubious he will go down that route.
Beyond the national arena – what about Egypt’s partners on the international stage? Yes, they have a role to play – not as blackmailers, which is what populists constantly talk about – but as partners. These institutions’ leaderships are in Europe and the US – and the governments of those countries, who still continue to do business and engage with the Egyptian government, should have made the case more significant in their relationship. No one should ask for special treatment for the NGOs and their staff – it should not be justice for one set of nationals and injustice for another – but this case has been so patently one fraught with unfairness, it is completely appropriate for foreign governments to be very blunt and open about the case. They haven’t been – and in particular, the reaction of the US has been extremely disappointing. Within DC, there have been many in the administration that have been enraged by the treatment of the NGOs for all the right reasons – but for whatever reason, the engagement of the US Embassy in Cairo on the issue has not reflected that. Indeed, the only American who decided to stay in Egypt, on the basis that he could not desert his Egyptian colleagues, was estranged by his Embassy.
The damage has been done
The American response might change somewhat now, as a guilty verdict will put the NGO leaderships into offensive mode within DC, lobbying left, right and centre for American policy vis-à-vis Egypt to change – but the damage has been done. That leaves European governments, who have been lobbying the Egyptian government for months to produce an NGO regime that is less, not more, restrictive than it was under Hosni Mubarak. The level of betrayal that they probably feel now, after having receiving certain assurances of fair play, might animate them further – but it is a pity that it had to come to this in order for them to take things so seriously.
This case is not about foreign intervention – or about law. It’s about sending a message – that civil society organizations in Egypt are not welcome to challenge the status quo and authority. It’s a message that for once, the “deep state” of the Mubarak regime, and Islamist forces, seem to agree on. All forces, inside and outside of Egypt, should send another message: that progress in Egypt depends on civil society being stronger, not weaker. That’s not to the benefit of foreign interests, or even democracy and human rights agendas – it is to the benefit of every Egyptian citizen, to be personally empowered, as opposed to relying upon a state structure that is constantly showing itself not to be up to the tasks upon it.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.