Congress urged to cut U.S. aid to Egypt over prison sentences given democracy advocates


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Members of the House of Representatives said Wednesday that there is enough support in Congress to slow, if not halt entirely, economic aid to Egypt over that country’s conviction of 43 people who worked for non-governmental organizations that promote democracy.

“It is very important for those listening in Cairo, and for that matter, in the halls of our State Department, to understand that the tolerance for this here in the United States Congress, on a bipartisan basis, is next to nil,” Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-VA, said at a hearing of the House Foreign Relations subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa. “There will be strong reactions here, on both the military and economic front.”

Witnesses representing four of the groups whose employees were among those sentenced to prison by an Egyptian court earlier this month, including two that were closed permanently by the Egyptian government, urged committee members to cut off economic aid to Egypt to signal clearly that targeting foreign-funded democracy advocates was intolerable.

“The U.S. should reconsider delivery of aid to the Egyptian government until all 43 NGO workers are cleared,” said Charles Dunne, a former Foreign Service officer and the director of the now-closed Middle East and North Africa office of Freedom House, one of the organizations. He called on the United States to reassess its relationship with Egypt. “The relationship cannot be allowed to operate on autopilot given the dramatic political changes in Egypt and the region.”

Dunne, in particular, has a personal connection to the controversial court decision. “For the last year and a half, I was Defendant Number 30 in the case,” said Dunne, who served 24 years in the State Department. “Today I stand convicted, sentenced to five years in prison and a fine.”

All 43 defendants, including 16 Americans and two Germans, were sentenced to prison terms of from two to five years. All but one of the Americans fled Egypt before the sentences were handed down; the lone American who stayed behind left Egypt within hours of the verdict.

Despite spending much of his professional life in Cairo, Dunne said his return to Egypt is unlikely, and his career as a diplomat and international democracy advocate in jeopardy. He said the convicted workers who fled the country to avoid jail time left friends, family and opportunity behind.

“This move has far-reaching impact . . . it has ruined lives,” said Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists, another of the organizations whose staff had been targeted in the Egyptian crackdown on democracy advocates. “The personal toll cannot be underestimated.”

The other two groups represented at the hearing were the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. All four groups receive funding from the U.S. government, and the NDI and IRI, while uninvolved in U.S. politics, have links to the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.

The witnesses also warned that the court’s verdict had political implications. They noted that the decision had implied a conspiracy on behalf of the U.S.-funded groups with Israel.

“Politics and not the law is what drove and decided this case,” said Dunne, arguing that the action required a political reaction.

The calls to cut off aid at the hearing calls contrast with the position of the Obama administration, which has expressed “concern” about the decision but rejected it as a turning point in U.S.-Egyptian relations.

Dunne disagreed.

“That’s a mistake. It really is a watershed moment,” he said. “Forty-three people have now been sentenced to prison in Egypt for implementing U.S. government-funded programs. That should be a wakeup call for the administration that not all is well in this relationship.”

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