An Egyptian court on Tuesday convicted and sentenced to jail 43 nonprofit workers, including 16 Americans, in a case that has alarmed democracy advocates who fear a shrinking space for civil society more than two years after the country’s revolution.
The convictions, on charges of using foreign funds to foment unrest, threaten to further strain ties between Egypt’s fledgling government and Washington, which has criticized the crackdown on rights workers and assailed Tuesday’s verdict.
The majority of those convicted were given five-year prison terms, but they were tried in absentia, having already left Egypt. They are unlikely to return. Eleven others received a suspended sentence of one year.
Only one American remained in Egypt after being charged, citing solidarity with the Egyptian people. Initially defiant, he’s since gone into exile. In the meantime, Secretary of State John Kerry is continuing his proud tradition of mild dyspepia in the face of ghastly human rights violations:
The United States is deeply concerned by the guilty verdicts and sentences, including the suspended sentences, handed down by an Egyptian court today against 43 NGO representatives in what was a politically-motivated trial. … 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.
Egypt’s constitution is generally regarded as a mixed bag, one that protects certain liberties while still receiving ample support from Islamists. But constitutions are only as good as the men who are interpreting them. And given that Egypt’s president in charge of enforcing the law, Mohammed Morsi, once argued that dancing was a gross violation of Egypt’s old constitution, permit me some pessimism. The validity of the current constitution has also been called into question, with a top court recently ruling that the panel that drafted the document was convened illegally.
Then there’s Egyptian legislative politics, which is divided between the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist party, and Salafist El-Nour, an extremist Islamist party. The last parliament was elected with Brotherhood and Salafist legislators controlling 75 percent of the lower house and 80 percent of the upper house. The two factions have plenty of squabbles, but are united over one powerful issue: their mutual hatred of Egyptian democrats, the reformers cheered by Americans as the heroes of the Arab Spring.
Politics aside, the vast majority of the convicted NGO workers made it out of the country. Those who returned to America will have good company: Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Coptic Christian filmmaker blamed for the Benghazi attack by the Obama administration in a fit of ass-covering mendacity, was sentenced to death by an Egyptian court. And unlike the NGO workers, Nakoula was later thrown in prison here in America, supposedly for a parole violation, but eminently for making a movie that annoyed Muslims.
Remember Rand Paul’s amendment to stop the United States from giving Egypt F-16 fighter jets and M1 tanks? I wonder what the 79 senators who voted the legislation down are thinking right now. Paul’s office announced today he’ll be introducing a new bill to cut off Egypt’s $1.3 billion in foreign aid. With Cairo slouching towards Islamism, can we please reopen this debate?