Today’s prison sentences by an Egyptian court in the case of several democratic activists in the country has rightly drawn attention to the 43 defendants – including 16 Americans, two Germans, and more than dozen Egyptians – who face jail terms for engaging in civil action in the country in the days before the country’s revolution. Egypt’s road to democracy in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow has not been straight or level, and this sentencing both harkens back to the old regime and reinforces the emerging authoritarian tendencies of his elected replacement, Mohammed Morsi, by intimidating and weakening the civil society opposition all healthy democratic societies need to flourish. It is, effectively, an attack on democratic politics itself.
That point has been lost in the important focus on the individuals threatened by arrest and prison terms. Handed down with the sentences were the forced closure and asset forfeiture of five foreign civil society non-governmental organizations: Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the International Center for Journalists, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All of them are American, except for the well-respected Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is German.
“The foreign NGOs were always the backbone of Egypt’s civil society,” Noha El Sebaie told Germany’s DeutscheWelle. Countries like Egypt, with infant democratic governing structures and even more fragile civil society, need international NGOs like Konrad Adenauer and NDI or Freedom House and others to build capacity and confidence in the next generation of leadership. I saw the result of this myself in Central and Eastern Europe after established Western European and American NGOs built policy beachheads in the early 1990s to support the equivalents of intellectual start-ups. The young, enthusiastic leadership of those new organizations gained the experience, knowledge and contacts to build democratic governments and write good policy as a result.
That should happen all over the Near East now. But the revolution is not complete in those countries and antipolitical interests, whether revanchist or out of reflex, are attacking these Tocquevillian cornerstones of newly democratic societies. We’ve already seen this in Russia as the Kremlin harasses and attacks NGOs and the media, closing the political space block by block. The same goes for countries like Belarus and Venezuela, who see open political debate not as an opportunity but a threat to control.
It’s important to remember that behind each one of the extraordinary, dynamic individuals sentenced in Egypt is a democratic institution they helped build and sustain. The Egyptian trial court, and likely also the regime, knows that with both of them gone, central political control got a little easier.
But there is a chance to make this right. The Egyptian court of appeal could vacate the ruling and the sentence. That would be a triumph for the law, for these activists, and for politics in an increasingly free and democratic Egypt.