Kerry Protests NGO Convictions in Egypt, But No Hint of Consequences

By Patrick Goodenough | June 5, 2013 | 5:01 AM EDT

Egyptians react to a court verdict convicting 43 non-governmental organization workers, including 16 Americans, of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Ahmed Abd El Latif, El-Shoruk Newspaper)

( – An Egyptian court on Tuesday convicted 43 non-governmental organization employees, including 16 U.S. citizens, accused of using foreign funds to promote unrest. The move drew strong condemnation in Washington and elsewhere, but Secretary of State John Kerry gave no hint that America’s substantial funding could be at risk.

The defendants – Americans, Europeans and Arabs – included employees with the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the democracy advocacy group Freedom House. The IRI’s Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, was one of 15 Americans sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. They had long since left the country.

In total, 27 defendants received five-year jail terms, five received two-year terms and 11 got one-year, suspended terms.

The judge also ordered that all of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the case be permanent shut.

Kerry called the trial “politically-motivated” and declared the U.S. government to be “deeply concerned,” ending his statement with an appeal to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government “to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution.”

The White House, according to a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, was also “deeply concerned” about the verdicts.

Neither response made any mention of the fact Egypt is a major recipient of U.S. funding, or hinted that this could be in jeopardy.

Last March, Kerry announced during a visit to Cairo that the administration was releasing $250 million in aid to Egypt. The following month the administration in its fiscal year 2013 State Department budget proposal requested $1.3 billion in military aid, plus $250 million in economic support funds to provide Egypt with “critical assistance as the country continues its historic democratic transition.”

On Capitol Hill, Tuesday’s court verdict drew a sharp response.

“If this decision stands, not a penny more of U.S. taxpayer money should go to the Muslim-Brotherhood led government in Cairo,” Rep Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said on the floor of the House of Representatives.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said President Mohammed Morsi must “immediately reverse course,” while Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who chairs the committee’s Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, said the U.S. should “reevaluate” its assistance.

“If we continue to send Egypt money from hardworking U.S. taxpayers, even as our own citizens are prosecuted, we send a message to Morsi that we find his regime’s behavior acceptable,” she said.

“That is not what the United States stands for – we must continue to push for freedoms and democratic reforms in Egypt, but we can no longer allow American dollars to go to the Morsi regime unconditionally.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, also criticized the move, and hinted at repercussions: “If Egypt continues on this repressive path it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to support President Morsi’s government.”

Asked about the question of U.S. assistance, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she would not want to speculate about any move to hold up funding, but conceded that Congress “has a great deal of power in that regard, so I’m sure they all have quite a bit to say.”

She reiterated the administration’s position on the importance of funding to Egypt.

“We recognize that much work needs to be done on their democratic transition,” she said. “And we will continue to press the government on specific aspects of that at all levels. But our assistance to Egypt reflects mutual interests in addressing regional security concerns that have helped maintain peace and security in the region for 30 years.

“And we believe that the Egyptian people deserve the benefit of a lot of these programs and a lot of these aid efforts that we have provided to date.”

Republican and Democratic administrations alike have been supportive of bolstering the Arab world’s largest country following its decision to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, and Egypt has received $1.3 billion a year in military aid since 1987.

Over that period Egypt was ruled by President Hosni Mubarak, but he was ousted in a popular uprising in early 2011. Following a transitional period of military rule, Morsi was elected president, and took office last June.

It was during the military rule period that the authorities began targeting foreign and Egyptian NGOs – although the Muslim Brotherhood supported the crackdown at the time.

Morsi last week submitted a draft law on NGOs which critics say are designed to restrict their funding and operation. It is now under consideration by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council.

‘We will have to closely review these matters’

After the NGO clampdown that culminated in Tuesday’s verdict began in late 2011 – with raids on offices and the imposition of travel bans – the Obama administration warned that U.S. funding may be affected.

“We have worked very hard the last year to put into place financial assistance and other support for the economic and political reforms that are occurring in Egypt,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters after a meeting also involving her Egyptian counterpart in Feb. 2012.

“And we will have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances,” she added.

Several weeks later, however, Clinton seemed less inclined to link Egypt’s conduct with the U.S. aid, responding to an interviewer’s question on the matter by saying, “It’s a problem. We have problems with a lot of our friends around the world. We’re trying to resolve it.”

Freedom House said Tuesday the trial had followed “a government-led witch-hunt intended to strangle civil society activity and limit free expression in post-revolutionary Egypt.”

Nancy Okail, director of Egypt programs at Freedom House, and one of those convicted on Tuesday, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the verdicts.

“President Morsi’s government has continued Mubarak’s tactics of using threats, intimidation, and the arbitrary exercise of government power to suppress free expression and association in Egypt,” she said.

“How can the international community believe he is committed to democracy when he has shut down groups and jailed staff who were helping Egyptians participate in shaping their country’s future?”

In their reactions to the trial outcome, IRI and NDI both warned that it would have a “chilling effect” on civil society in Egypt.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow