Egyptian Court Verdict Complicates Relations With Washington

The State Department and several U.S. pro-democracy organizations have reacted strongly to a Cairo court ruling Tuesday. More than 40 foreign and local NGO workers were sentenced to prison for operating without a license. The ruling will likely spur calls in Congress for retaliation.

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The Obama administration is expressing deep concern about guilty verdicts in Egypt against 43 people who were working on democracy programs in the country. Sixteen of them are Americans, though most left Egypt when the charges were brought against them. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that issue is one of many complicating Washington's relations with Cairo.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Charles Dunne wasn't even in Egypt when he first heard about the charges against him and he never received anything official from the court.

CHARLES DUNNE: I was called a fugitive in the original indictment, although I hadn't been in Egypt for a year at that point. So it appears I'm not going to be able to go back anytime soon.

KELEMEN: Dunne is a former U.S. diplomat who now runs the Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House. He was sentenced to five years in prison in Egypt along with more than 40 others.

DUNNE: It's a kind of a personal blow. What I'm really worried about is our Egyptian staff who have families there and the affect on them. And It's really quite serious.

KELEMEN: Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute all say they will appeal the Egyptian court decision. Dunne says he also thinks the U.S. needs to speak out more forcefully and recognize that this case is a threat to Egyptian democracy and to U.S. goals in the region.

DUNNE: In a sense, organizations like Freedom House and others, including their local counterparts, are the canary in the coal mine. If they are under assault you can imagine there's a much broader assault on political and civic rights that's going on.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement expressing deep concern about the guilty verdicts in what he calls a politically motivated trial. His spokesperson Jen Psaki says the U.S. has been raising these concerns with Egyptian authorities.

JEN PSAKI: The decision to close these organizations' offices and seize their assets contradicts the government of Egypt's own commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy and contributor to development, especially at this critical stage in Egypt's transition to democracy.

KELEMEN: But she didn't threaten any consequences for Egypt. Some members of congress want the Obama administration to be much tougher. Virginia Republican Frank Wolf took to the House floor yesterday to rail against Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the NGO trial, which Congressman Wolf called a charade.

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REPRESENTATIVE FRANK WOLF: I was in Egypt in February and heard first-hand that the Egyptian government's handling of this case is symptomatic of a broader crack-down on civil society. This was a sham trial from the start. If this decision stands, not a penny more of U.S. taxpayer money should go to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo.

KELEMEN: The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid and a couple hundred million more to support the Egyptian economy. Charles Dunne of Freedom House says the U.S. should be using its influence with the Egyptian military and with Morsi's government.

DUNNE: The U.S. does have leverage and I think in some sense it is leverage that it is not using. I mean, first of all it needs to speak out more forcefully in public about this whole raft of issues. Not just the NGO case, but the assault on civic and political rights in general.

KELEMEN: In addition to the guilty verdicts in the trails of democracy activists, the U.S. has been raising concerns about a draft Egyptian law, which Dunne says would criminalize democracy and human rights promotion in Egypt. He says this could have a chilling effect on such programs elsewhere in the Arab world. Michele Kelemen, NPR News Washington.

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