U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, made the following statement at a subcommittee hearing titled: "The Struggle for Civil Society in Egypt." Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:
"Egypt has long been considered a key state for U.S. national security objectives in the Middle East and North Africa, and for over 30 years our two nations have shared strategic military and political cooperation.
For its part, Egypt reached a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and since then, the United States has provided Egypt with billions of dollars in military and economic assistance. In return, Egypt keeps the peace with its neighbor and our strategic ally, the democratic Jewish State of Israel, and it also provides us with access to the Suez Canal that gives us a critical route for transit between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean.
But today's Egypt isn't the Egypt of 1979 or even 2009; when the Arab Spring began, few thought Mubarak would fall. Mubarak was forced to step down and Egypt was finally able to begin the transition toward freedom and democracy.
But Egypt was a society that never had any experience with democracy. There was no foundation for democracy and governance, civil society, rule of law in Egypt -- there were just millions of Egyptians who knew they wanted something better, and they just didn't know how to achieve it.
Perhaps sensing that the time to open Egyptian society was near, the United States government began to fund democracy and governance programs in Egypt a little over a decade ago. What started out as a relatively modest program with lofty goals and objectives, the Arab Spring of 2011 and the Egyptian street's response proved there was indeed the need and the desire for such programs in Egypt. That year the U.S. government increased our funding for democracy and governance from $13 million in fiscal year 2010 to $72 million in fiscal year 2011.
Due to the ongoing unrest that later became the Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian government began to strongly object to some of the U.S. government's planned democracy and governance programs, and the Ministry of Justice began targeting our implementing partners in Egypt.
Then in December of 2011, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 17 local and foreign NGOs, including 4 American NGOs who were implementing U.S. funded programs - Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).
43 of the employees of these NGOs were arrested and they were charged with operating offices in Egypt without being registered and receiving foreign funds without the approval of the Egyptian government. Despite the ever changing and fragile state of Egypt's transition to democracy from the time of the arrest until the time they were convicted in June of last year, the one constant that remained was that these 43 individuals were pawns in a politically motivated dispute between the Egyptian and the U.S. government.
The NGOs were merely doing their job and operating how they believed to be in accordance with Egyptian law, yet they were arrested, they were tried; they were convicted in a politically motivated operation. And many people may think because we got the Americans out of the country and back to the United States that their struggles are over, but that is not remotely the case.
This conviction has loomed over their heads like the sword of Damocles, as they have to live their lives in constant worry of the repercussions. That is why in June of 2013, my colleague Gerry Connolly and I requested that GAO conduct a review of U.S. economic and security assistance to Egypt. GAO will present today their findings of the first phase of their report that deals with the NGO and civil society issues.
Today's hearing is important to tell their stories and let us know how this has impacted the lives of these 43 and their families, and how it has impacted the U.S. democracy and governance programs in Egypt and elsewhere. Our witnesses deserve to be heard, we need to hear their story.
Because the fight for civil society, the fight for democracy and governance, rule of law and human rights in Egypt is nowhere near over; the transition to democracy is still fragile, and al-Sisi has a long hard row ahead. One of the easiest ways that he can prove to Egyptians and the U.S. that he is serious about this task is to immediately and unconditionally pardon the 43 NGO workers.
We have seen mass arrests and we've already seen journalists from al-Jazeera arrested and sentenced to 7-10 years in jail. These are not signs of an open and inclusive society that respects human rights; just because Egypt lives up to its obligations under the peace treaty with Israel doesn't mean that the United States will continue to provide assistance unconditionally and disregard human rights conditions because we will not do that.
While we recognize Egypt's commitment to the Sinai and security threats, there must be an improvement in Egypt's human rights record and its must take steps to advance the aspirations of the people of Egypt toward democracy."