Egyptian Court Puts Democracy Behind Bars

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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The principled stance to take on the conviction by an Egyptian court of 43 workers from foreign nongovernmental organizations is that we shouldn't mess with an independent judiciary. However, Egypt doesn't have one.

Everything about the case, which was filed under the previous military government, has been political. The court hasn't yet published its reasoning -- the workers are accused of operating without a license and receiving foreign money -- but I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that the convictions make no sense. They represent an outrageous breach of the rights of well-intentioned individuals by the institution designed to protect them.

The U.S. and European responses will be complicated, though, by two factors: First, the Islamist government of President Mohamed Mursi and the courts are generally opposed to one another -- they're entering a pitched battle over the authority of the constitutional court. So punishing the government for a court decision in a case that was brought by a previous government may not be the smartest idea.

Second, the U.S. and Egypt already came to a kind of compromise on the case. After the U.S. threatened to withdraw the roughly $1.5 billion of annual aid it gives to Egypt, the government lifted a travel ban on the foreign defendants. Most of them fled and were tried in absentia. They won't be going to jail. (The one American still there, Robert Becker, received a two-year sentence.)

All the same, Egypt looks increasingly like a country that shouldn't get huge amounts of Western aid under the current regime. Mursi's government may not have wanted this case, but it's introducing a highly restrictive law on nonprofits that shows the Muslim Brotherhood shares the military's fundamental suspicion of any group it cannot control.

In the same 24-hour news cycle, another court jailed a man for insulting Mursi, and his advisers were shown on live TV advising him to back rebels and sabotage a dam in neighboring Ethiopia.

Pulling the annual U.S. aid that has long been a quid pro quo for Egypt's peace with Israel probably isn't a productive idea, as tempting as it may be. But Western leaders do need to get the message across loud and clear that they can't help Egypt if it won't help itself.

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To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net