An Egyptian court has sentenced at least 15 US citizens in absentia to five years in jail and forced the closure of foreign NGOs. Among the NGOs affected is Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
A court in Cairo court has sentenced 43 non-profit workers, among them Egyptians and at least 15 foreign employees of several non-governmental organisations to jail sentences. It has also ordered the permanent closure of branches of several NGOs, including the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS).
The Arab Spring in Egypt did more than dissolve Hosni Mubarak's regime. Many other people and institutions got drawn into the revolution's wake, including 44 international NGOs who were accused by Egyptian leaders of intruding in the country's internal affairs.
In the final days of 2011, around eight months after Mubarak's regime fell, armed police forces searched the KAS offices in Cairo. They confiscated documents and computers and proceeded to arrest the office director, Andreas Jacobs, who was then interrogated for hours. Jacobs and a second KAS employee were eventually released on 500,000 euros ($654,000) bail and able to leave the country.
The charges faced by the two were absurd, says Hans-Gert Pöttering, head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which has close ties to Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In an interview last week with German public broadcaster ARD, he said the KAS has worked in Egypt "just as has been customary for the last 30 years," and that there have never been complaints about its actions.
Pöttering says his organization simply conducts seminars and conferences on topics like "the social economy, developing democracy and the rule of law as well as gender equality."
Domestic and foreign NGOs targeted
Political scientist Noha El Sebaie, who works with an Egyptian NGO, believes the government wants to consolidate its power by way of the trial against KAS and other foundations. In an interview with DW in July 2012, she said, "The military council is trying to destroy the power of the revolution bit by bit."
Her organization, Nahdet El Mahrousa (Renaissance in Egypt), aims to generate interest among young people in cultural and social engagement and has also suffered as a result of foreign NGOs coming under fire. Nahdet El Mahrousa has had to drop projects and cancel conferences because of a lack of financial support from NGOs headquartered abroad.
"The foreign NGOs were always the backbone of Egypt's civil society," said Noha El Sebaie.
Officials in the North African country have also made moves against domestic NGOs and are currently conducting investigations into the affairs of hundreds of Egyptian groups. Among them are many that document human rights violations.
One official's revenge?
The motives for the legal proceedings remain unclear. It seems probable that the KAS merely got caught in the wide net cast by Cairo's prosecutors, whose complaints were originally directed against NGOs associated with the United States. Prosecutors said their work had destabilized Egypt during the Arab Spring.
Critics accuse Egypt's justice system of acting unpredictably and fabricating charges. At the center of these accusations stands Egypt's Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Faiza Abu Naga. She is suspected of having embezzled money from benefit payments that came from abroad. In 2004, American foundations began sending their aid money not by way of her ministry, instead sending the funds directly to Egyptian NGOs. Some suggest that the trials represent a personal act of revenge from a corrupt politician.
But there have been some signs that the conflict between the government and foreign NGOs is easing. After meeting with representatives of Egyptian NGOs, President Mohammed Morsi said, "My highest task with respect to this civil society is supporting it in its work. I am convinced that prosperity and development in Egypt will be on the right path only with the work of NGOs."
Some observers have construed Morsi's statement as an admission that his country is dependent upon financial support from abroad.
End of the road?
Ronald Meinardus, who works for another German organization in Cairo, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, said to DW in March that he was certain that the Konrad Adenauer Foundation was considering when it will be able to send over its new project director.
The issue has indeed been under consideration in Berlin, where KAS has its headquarters. The head of the Africa and Middle East division, Hardy Ostry, had said that he could soon re-open the Cairo office as the organization was keen to build on its work over the last three decades. That seems impossible now the court has ordered the permanent closure of KAS branches.