Saturday November was to see an end to the trial of 43 NGO employees charged with leading unregistered organizations and receiving illegal foreign funding. Closing arguments have now been postponed to December 2, verdicts and sentencing to come a month or two after that.
These proceedings have been denounced by the United States, though we have done very little beside making speeches. While Egypt’s new government has continued with these prosecutions, various members of President Obama’s cabinet have visited Cairo and announced that they found President Morsi to be a dedicated supporter of democracy. Yet the trial has a chilling effect on NGO and civil society activity, and on financial support for it.
The verdict in this case will tell us a good deal about the direction in which Egypt is heading: toward an open society where individuals and groups can challenge the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, or a closed system much like the one over which Hosni Mubarak presided–only with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the Army at the top and excluding voices it does not wish to hear.
In an interview on November 1, U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson rightly said that “the American NGOs functioning in Egypt were carrying out their work in complete transparency and goodwill in an effort to support and develop Egyptian civil society.” If the government of Egypt criminalizes such activity, Americans will have learned a good deal about its intentions.