Egypt's Slide into Authoritarianism Continues As Government Sentences 16 American NGO Workers to Prison Time


Forty-three NGO workers, including at least 16 Americans, were convicted in absentia Tuesday in Egypt for being in the country illegally and using improperly receiving foreign funds. In December of 2011, Egyptian officials raided the offices of 17 NGO’s, including the well-known US National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House. In their search, they found reason to believe the NGOs were illegally using international money to create political unrest in Egypt.

During the trial, Egypt placed a travel ban on the suspects, requiring them to stay in Egypt through sentencing. With heavy pressure from the U.S. State Department, the ban was lifted allowing the American suspects to leave. Of the 43 workers, 27 received a maximum jail sentence of five years in absence. There were 15 Americans included in the 27 workers, who had left the country prior to the trial. Robert Becker, the only American who remained present at the trial despite the lift of the travel ban, was one of 5 workers to receive a two-year jail sentence. Additionally, there were 11 Egyptians who were given a one-year suspension. Egyptians officials plan to close and confiscate all offices of the illegally run NGOs, which if carried out will increase the strain on the faded U.S./Egyptian relationship.

Despite the U.S. and Egypt being allied for decades, the actions taken by Egypt in the coming days will undoubtedly determine current relations. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the dire implication of seizing assets as it "contradicts the Government of Egypt's commitments to support the role of civil society." His concern is that the Egyptian government is failing to support democracy, and consequently such acts will further strain U.S. relations. Supporting democracy comes with a hefty paycheck. Assured by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September of 2012, the U.S. would continue with support of $1.3bn in military aid and another $250 million in economic aid following the pro-democratic uprisings.

In addition to their seizure of all materials, new laws are being introduced to change the future of foreign NGOs in Egypt. Egyptian legislators are currently debating a law to move oversight of NGOs to the Egyptian government and to monitor all international funds. Creators of the law justify the law as seeking to prevent social unrest from the work of NGOs in Egypt. However, NGOs and opponents argue the law will only prevent the rights of those in Egypt, and will reverse the democratic progress made since the Arab Spring.  

While the future for those sentenced was decided by the Egyptian judicial system, future relationship between the U.S. and Egypt is yet to be determined. Egypt will either chose to detrimentally seize NGO assets, or soothe the situation and move back in the pro-democratic direction with the US.