June 7, 2013 | Policy Brief

The Backstory Behind Egypt’s NGO Arrests

June 7, 2013 | Policy Brief

The Backstory Behind Egypt’s NGO Arrests

An Egyptian court convicted 43 people working for foreign democracy and human rights NGOs on Tuesday. Nineteen were Americans working for some of the most established non-profits in the world. Some were sentenced to up to five years in jail for the crime of working in organizations not legally approved by the Egyptian government and using foreign funding without the government's approval.

The case began in December 2011 when the ruling military junta investigated organizations that received foreign funding. This occurred at a time when the military was cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood, with an eye toward power sharing. The military leaders targeted the NGOs because they were one of the most important assets of the pro-democracy movement which threatened the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and their partner, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Years later, with SCAF dissolved and the military at odds with the Brotherhood, the case finally had its day in court. The ruling may appear absurd, but it shines a light on several crucial issues that have gone largely overlooked.

First, the judiciary's ruling reflects an accurate interpretation of problematic laws concerning NGOs that must be changed in Egypt. Indeed, Egypt is still ruled by laws and regulations copied from Eastern Europe by former dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1960s. Those laws portray human rights and pro-democracy advocates as “traitors” and “foreign agents” who seek to destabilize Egypt. This reflects the mindset of an authoritarian State, not an aspiring democracy.

Second, the judges could have taken into account the political fallout that was sure to occur between the US and Egypt, but they clearly chose to apply the law without regard to the political needs of the president, Mohammed Morsi. This suggests that the judiciary truly sought to exercise its independence.

This is important context, particularly at a time when judges and civil society groups have been struggling to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from issuing controversial new laws regarding the judiciary and NGOs. For example, the proposed NGO law gives overarching control and oversight to the executive. In the case of the judiciary, the Muslim Brotherhood’s new law aims to lower the retirement age, and will effectively force 3,000 judges into retirement. The Brotherhood would then presumably replace them with younger judges friendlier to the Brotherhood.

The judiciary also opposes both laws because the Brotherhood wants to use the temporary legislature, the Shura Council, to pass them unopposed. Two thirds of this legislature was elected by seven percent of Egyptians in dubious conditions and one third of its members were appointed by Morsi.

The current tensions between the US and Egypt over the sentencing of American aid workers should not be exaggerated. This trial is not over, but when it is, Morsi will have little choice but to issue pardons. Once the crisis has passed, the West should focus its efforts to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood does not erode the foundation for a strong and independent judiciary in Egypt. It should further encourage the government to pass fair NGO laws that encourage democracy promotion instead of criminalizing it.

Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies