Some in Congress question aid to Egypt over NGO prison sentences

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

An Egyptian court’s decision to convict 43 democracy proponents – along with a proposed Egyptian law that would restrict how nongovernmental organizations here operate – has spurred a chorus of concern from European leaders, members of the U.S. Congress and even the United Nations that Egypt’s first democratically elected government is attacking basic human rights.

One German politician said he was outraged and disturbed by the sentences, which were handed down to staff members of various nongovernmental organizations, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, two groups that received money from Congress. Another called the verdict, which affected 16 Americans and two Germans, in addition to Egyptians, scandalous.

In a statement, the United Nations said the verdict was “a sign of an increasingly restrictive environment for civil society in the country.” Several members of Congress said the United States should reconsider its $1.3 billion in annual aid in light of Egypt’s perceived recent crackdown on civic society organizations, which are commonly called nongovernmental organizations.

There’s been one notable exception to the international response: the Obama administration, which said it was “deeply concerned” by the sentences but suggested it was not a watershed moment in relations with Egypt. Other nations and international groups called for the courts to reconsider the verdicts or said recent actions by Egypt should lead to limits on international aid; the Obama administration said Egypt should work with civic groups.

“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,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement shortly after the June 4 verdicts.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden used nearly the same language. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that discussing future U.S funding to Egypt would be speculative.

In Germany, calls to cut funding are growing. Peter Gauweiler, a member of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, called the ruling a decisive breaking point for relations, suggesting that Germany no longer provide Egypt with $130 million annually in aid.

"We must stipulate reversal of this verdict, and until this has occurred, there can be no more diplomatic relations with this country," Gauweiler told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the newspaper Die Welt that the verdict was scandalous.

Anger over the verdicts is expected Wednesday in Washington, when the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa will hold a hearing about NGOs in Egypt. Among those scheduled to testify are four officials from the organizations whose employees were prosecuted.

The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was among the members of Congress who said the Egyptian verdict should lead the U.S. to re-evaluate its aid program for the government of President Mohammed Morsi.

“We can no longer allow American dollars to go to the Morsi regime unconditionally,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., offered a similar assessment. “This was a sham trial from the start. If this decision stands, not a penny more of U.S. taxpayer money should go to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo.”

There’s little sign that the Obama administration is considering a major change in U.S.-Egyptian relations or funding. Observers say the U.S. may have another motive: not wanting to disturb relations so much that the Egyptian government rattles its relationship with Israel.

“The United States clearly wants to resume business as usual quickly with Egypt,” wrote Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, for the Atlantic Council. “Downplaying the importance of events that close off space for peaceful mainstream democratic activity runs counter to the overarching long-term U.S. interest in an Egypt that becomes more stable and moderate.”

Germany has taken a much tougher stance. Members of the German Parliament have said they fear that Egypt under Morsi is moving away from democratic reforms toward a state much like the one under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, this time with an Islamist bent.

During Morsi’s visit to Germany in January, Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to talk to all Egyptian political parties while everyday Germans protested Morsi’s visit, calling him undemocratic.

A German NGO, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, was among the civic society organizations that Egyptian authorities raided in 2011. Two of its employees were charged with operating an illegal organization and obtaining funds with it illegally. The NGO is affiliated with Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, and has operated in Egypt for three decades.

All but one of the Americans, Robert Becker, formerly of the National Democratic Institute, fled Egypt before the verdicts. Becker, who’d vowed to stand alongside his Egyptian counterparts, was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor. One of the two Germans, Christina Baade, a bookkeeper, also chose to stay in Egypt, where she’s lived for 18 years and is married to an Egyptian. She left after she, too, was sentenced to two years.

Becker, who departed for Europe shortly after the convictions, said he’d heard from friends who worked at several European embassies, who expressed concern and offered assistance. He said he hadn’t heard anything from the U.S. State Department or the U.S. ambassador here, Anne Patterson.

UPDATE: The 10th paragraph of this story has been revised to reflect who was scheduled to testify on Wednesday. The witnesses are NGO officials, not convicted employees of those NGOs.

Email: nyoussef@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef

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