Trial of pro-democracy workers set to begin tomorrow in Egypt


Tomorrow the trial of 43 civil society workers–including 16 Americans–is set to begin in Egypt.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “[t]he 43 employees will be tried on charges of illegally operating unlicensed nongovernmental organizations and receiving foreign funds without notifying Egyptian authorities.”

The Journal goes on to characterize the Egyptian government’s “case” against these workers as shadowy and vague, stating, “defendants and their lawyers say that basic and crucial questions about the nature of the charges remain shrouded in mystery only days before the case is set to begin. They add that the lingering obscurity exposes the accusations for what they are: Trumped-up charges meant to disparage pro-democracy activists by lumping them in with imagined foreign plots to undermine and divide Egypt.”

It seems that forces in Egypt that want to suppress freedom are falsely accusing those who are threats to their illegitimate governance: the NGOs that are promoting true democracy, including protection of minority rights.

This interpretation of events jibes with what I hear from dissident Cynthia Farahat, a Coptic Christian Egyptian activist and author who charges that Egypt’s elections were fixed by Islamist forces there.  Farahat tells me she believes the U.S. must be the “strong horse” in the face of this aggression and stand firm in our support for pro-democracy activists. She believes the U.S. should cut off the 1.3 billion military aid Egypt receives unless harassment against pro-democracy activists stops. Others have contended doing so is too risky to the cold peace that exists between Egypt and Israel (that cutting Egypt off financially would diminish Egypt’s incentive to  keep the peace). Farahat argues, however, that it is naive to believe that providing money to Egypt’s government will protect the cold peace; eventually, she says, if it continues to be governed by extremists, Egypt will use the U.S. aid money to wage war against Israel.

Seems to me this is an extremely tough call. It’s like Henry Kissinger’s “realist” foreign policy against Natan Sharansky’s more idealistic one. I believe Sharansky is correct that most people everywhere–yes, the mideast, too–want freedom, given a choice between that and tyranny. But in the middle east, at times it has been foreign policy of the “realist” school that has, while not promoting true change or progress, allowed for periods of peace and stability.  In other words, the dictators and extremist clergy have done such an effective job of brainwashing and suppressing the people that at times it seems dictators are necessary. And bribing dictators has worked–at least temporarily, in the case of Mubarak’s Egypt. With Iran on its way to obtaining nuclear capability, there is also an ominous timeline to consider: is this, realistically, the time to take a risk in cutting off Egypt? Then again, Kissinger’s public service predated the age of global communications.  And supporting dictatorial regimes will never yield a true peace for Israel, the U.S., or anyone, because–as Sharansky pointed out–dictatorships must always have external enemies. Sure enough, Farahat tells me that, throughout her childhood, she was taught in school that Egyptians must bide their time but that, in time, they would destroy their enemies, the United States and its satellite, Israel. (Remember, this was Mubarak’s Egypt, which was receiving major U.S. aid money, a supposed U.S. ally, and supposedly at peace with Israel).

In June, I wrote an editorial in which I quoted Christopher Walker, director of studies at the New York-based non-profit Freedom House, saying that as dictatorships continue to fall, we should not expect an immediate flowering of civil society and freedom. Rather, in the intermediate term, dictators and despots and corrupt regimes will cling more tightly than ever to illegitimate power and clamp down on the forces of freedom and those who would advance civil society.

Turns out, Freedom House is one of the NGOs whose workers will tomorrow be placed on trial for the “crime” of promoting democracy. Others include the National Democratic Institute and the International  Republican Institute. What a terrible day when true reformers who are risking their lives to help the region are put on trial for this “crime.” Is it not perhaps more important now than ever to see clearly, not that the cause of democracy in the middle east is hopeless–but the opposite? Perhaps extremist forces in Egypt are panicking and showing their weakness. Perhaps Farahat is right that now more than ever it is crucial the U.S. cleave to its principles and take a strong stand.

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