In the 1830s a young French intellectual, Alexis de Tocqueville, travelled to the United States determined to learn what a great republic looked like.
One feature that struck him powerfully was the cultural habit of ordinary Americans to join together in civil society to confront social and political evils. "In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion," Tocqueville wrote in "Democracy in America."
"There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals."
Two and half years ago the collective power of ordinary Egyptians brought down the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. But the Islamist regime that has replaced it, the Muslim Brotherhood, shows growing contempt for the exercise of this democratic power: the freedom of association.
Last week the government of Mohamed Morsi convicted 43 workers from advocacy groups -- including Egyptians, Americans and Europeans -- of operating illegally in the country. A Cairo court handed down five-year prison terms to 27 defendants (tried in absentia), along with reduced and suspended sentences to those willing to pay steep fines. The case dates back to December 2011, when police raided the offices of 17 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across Cairo, detaining employees and seizing assets. Groups such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Centre for Journalists, and the U.S.-based Freedom House were charged with "receiving illicit foreign funds" and "operating without a license."
"This whole case was a disgrace from the very beginning, and the verdict makes a mockery of the Egyptian judicial process," said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. "It is motivated purely by corrupt and anti-democratic behavior and a determination to shut down civil society. None of those indicted did anything wrong. They were simply working with Egyptians to help them realize their dream of a free Egypt, and instead have been made scapegoats for a government and judiciary who have betrayed the aspirations of the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution."
The Muslim Brotherhood's assault on NGOs follows a pattern of repression by Islamist groups as they gain political power in Muslim-majority countries. Turkey, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is facing massive anti-government demonstrations against its increasingly authoritarian rule. Morsi, who addressed Turkey's Justice and Development Party in September 2012, lauded the Islamist party as a "source of inspiration." Some inspiration: as in Turkey, the ruling Islamists in Egypt are making common cause with the military to target their enemies -- including liberal democrats, human rights advocates, journalists and religious minorities.
Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that the United States was "deeply concerned" by the guilty verdicts in Egypt. "This decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association," Kerry said, "and is incompatible with the transition to democracy." That gets it exactly right.
The problem, though, is that declarations of disapproval from the Obama administration are not translating into action. There was no hint in Kerry's statement of any diplomatic consequences to Morsi's crackdown. There was no warning about Morsi's proposed law to tighten state control over all NGO activities. There will be no interruption in the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt or the $250 million in U.S. economic aid. The "universal principle" of freedom association is headed for the shredder in Egypt, and it is business as usual.
This was not the brand of leadership that candidate Obama promised for the United States and its allies. "I have lived in the most populous Muslim country in the world, had relatives who practiced Islam," he told the New York Times. "I can speak forcefully about the need for Muslim countries to reconcile themselves to modernity in ways they have failed to do." In his 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama criticized those who "advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others." He was, of course, describing the Muslim Brotherhood, without ever mentioning it by name.
These were strong words, necessary words. But words without deeds don't count for much in the real world -- especially in those parts of the world where basic human freedoms are denied.
"In our time, freedom of association has become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority," wrote Tocqueville. "The right of association therefore appears to me to be almost as inalienable in its nature as individual freedom."
As the United States remains a mere spectator to events, this "necessary guarantee" against tyranny -- the right to join peacefully with others to challenge unjust laws -- is dissolving in Egypt in the acid bath of political Islam. As the American president expresses his "deep concern" about these latest violations of human rights, they continue apace on the streets of Cairo.
Joseph Loconte, PhD, a professor of history at the King's College in New York City, is the author of Gospel of Liberty: John Locke and the Struggle for Religious Freedom (Lexington Press, forthcoming).