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Yesterday's guilty verdict in the long-standing trial concerning unapproved funding for NGOs working in Egypt is an indication of the government's stance on civil society, says Adam Mowafi.

In a surprise verdict, employees of NGOs which were prosecuted for allegedly receiving unapproved foreign funds under SCAF’s temporary leadership have been sentenced to prison. The NGOs in question have also had their offices shut down and their assets liquidated.  

NGOs, of course, play an important role in shaping and maintaining civil society and were instrumental in helping the revolutionaries with funding, organising and educating their groups, even defending the Muslim Brotherhood under Mubarak’s oppression. Many of the affected NGOs were more humanitarian than political so the verdict came as a shock to many. “This is a very strong message that the government wants to control NGOs and it thinks it is fine to lock up their workers,” said Heba al-Morayef, Egypt director of Human Rights Watch. The news spread fast, with US secretary of state saying that America is deeply concerned by the verdicts in what was “a politically motivated trial.” He added: “This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy.”

Although many of the NGO workers initially charged left the country last year, many of whom were suspiciously escorted out by armed officers, one American working for the National Democratic Institute, Robert Becker, decided to stay to support his Egyptian colleagues. Apparently, Becker was at a café in Cairo yesterday when he heard his verdict. Under the advice of his lawyers, he was on an airplane to Rome just hours before a flight ban could be imposed.

While the case was not started by the Muslim Brotherhood, the continuation of the trial and yesterday’s verdict indicates the ruling party’s stance on civil society, especially given their upcoming changes to laws concerning NGO funding.