Last year, Egyptians overthrew the Mubarak regime in the name of freedom and democracy. Yet, the transitional government’s recent taking of hostages—foreign nongovernmental staff—reveals that authoritarian tendencies remain a major problem.
On Monday, Egypt’s public prosecutor published a list of 43 workers, including 19 Americans, who will be put on trial for violating foreign funding laws. Egypt’s interim government claims that the foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) illegally funded political groups in Egypt’s parliamentary election. The NGOs insist that they provided Egyptians with only technical assistance to help them take part in the elections. The American individuals charged include:
The investigation’s ringleader, Faiza Abou el-Naga, is Egypt’s Planning and International Cooperation minister and a holdover from the Mubarak regime. Taking advantage of Egyptians’ suspicions of foreign influence, particularly from the U.S., Abou el-Naga charges that “the Egyptian government will not hesitate to expose foreign schemes that threaten the stability of the homeland.” Rather, according to Sherif Mansour, Program Officer of Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House and one of those charged,
Abou el-Naga is using the “remnants of the Mubarak political system…to oppress, intimidate and control civil society.”
Unwilling to relinquish power, Egypt’s military-led interim government, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), has repeatedly blamed foreign NGOs for continued unrest. Last December, the offices of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) were raided and staff banned from leaving the country. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Egypt’s primary winner in recent parliamentary elections, have also supported the charges.
While some of the Americans charged, like Mansour, are no longer in Egypt, others including Sam LaHood, Director of IRI’s Cairo office and son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are holed up in the U.S. Embassy. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.
Egypt’s actions risk severe consequences. The Obama Administration cannot allow U.S. citizens to be held hostage by an increasingly authoritarian government. U.S. assistance to Egypt, totaling $1.5 billion, should be frozen immediately. Furthermore, the Administration must reassess its relationship with Cairo and adopt a tougher approach in light of these recent events.