The current furore over Egypt’s highly public effort to put a group of NGO staff members – working at the International Republican Institute in Cairo (including the son of a US cabinet member) – on trial because they have been working on democracy issues and electoral training may actually belong at the feet of Ronald Reagan. What could the writer possibly mean? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
We need some history before we look at Cairo, now. Back at the height of the Cold War, half a decade before Reagan would go to Berlin to challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”, Reagan was calling for governments to take up a proactive fight on behalf of democratic values – in opposition to the Evil Empire, USSR. Think of this as a sort of the child of US top diplomat John Foster Dulles’ insistence on the liberation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe and a rollback of the Iron Curtain. Aside from the ‘Star Wars’ missile defence shield initiative and the really bodacious military build-up, in the world of ideas, the tangible result of Reagan’s challenge was the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, Reagan had called for an act of supreme confidence – or extraordinary hubris: “Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best – a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny… We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” It’s pretty hard to argue with his idea – at least in the abstract. But how one might possibly – as we used to say back in the day – concretise this vision, was, and remains, a question.
In response, Congress established the National Endowment for Democracy – with its avowed purpose of supporting aspiring democrats worldwide. To make it real on the ground, the NED helped fund four separate, non-profit, nonpartisan, nicely balanced democracy institutes – the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Centre for International Private Enterprise and the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity. One for the Republicans, one for Democrats, one for business and one for labour, so nobody felt left out.
To drive this intellectual crusade, the nascent organisation called on Carl Gershman, a veteran of the hard-edged anti-communist left of the 1970s and early 1980s who had moved from youthful socialism to anti-poverty activism and then on to the international human rights revolution that became the dividing line between good and evil. In Gershman’s appointment and in the purposes of the NED and its affiliates, there is a direct line back to the very beginnings of the idea of America.
How far back? Even before the beginning. Before a shipload of Puritan dissenters had even reached what became the Massachusetts, in 1631, John Winthrop had delivered a shipboard sermon that set out the case for first version of American exceptionalism and the underlying rationale for proselytising it to the rest of the world. Or, as Winthrop had admonished his flock, “we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, and that the eyes of all people are upon us”.
For some historians, the American experiment and its ideas about freedom in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, on through to Woodrow Wilson’s World War I Fourteen Points, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, and the US’ engagement with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War – such as the NED – trace back to Winthrop’s seventeenth century homily.
Reagan himself did that very thing when he told the 1984 Republican presidential convention “…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace… That’s how I saw it and see it still.” And his vice president George HW Bush added modestly “our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world”.
On behalf of this position, through the long years of the Cold War, through covert means, the CIA had underwritten organisations like the Paris-based Council for Cultural Freedom as well as provided support to America’s National Student Association to aid their participation in international cultural, intellectual and student forums so they could go toe-to-toe with their Russian-aided Eastern European and third world counterparts.
In a more straightforward, fully-open manner, the US Information Service managed American libraries and shortwave VOA broadcasts, carried out student exchanges and organised international cultural tours, all as part of the battle to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of people around the world. ‘Hearts and minds’, of course, eventually ended up with a darker, more terrible resonance when it came to be applied to Vietnam.
By the time the National Endowment for Democracy and its partnering institutes came into being in the 1980s, the point was not simply to push back against the Russians – it was part of the new wave of democratisation efforts around the world. The NED-funded groups tried out their training wheels in Latin America as part of efforts to end (left and right) authoritarianism in that part of the world, and then it moved on to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa as the Soviet Union crumbled. Their efforts included the training of the burgeoning array of political parties, NGO advocacy groups – and even the staff of elections offices.
The NED and its partners continue to be active in various parts of Africa, especially on election projects. A quick peruse of the IRI website notes they are active in a hundred nations today. But, given what has been happening in Egypt over the past couple of weeks with IRI, maybe that number will be adjusted to 99 instead.
In theory at least, the social and political explosion of the Arab Spring should have been NED and its associated bodies’ next golden moment in the sun. All those regimes, previously frozen in time, now suddenly with their societies breaking out into a new, more open style of politics and freer elections should be making bountiful times for groups like the NED. Instead, these organisations seem to be running into a growing wave of suspicion about their ulterior motives.
Traditionally, of course, authoritarian rulers have viewed these pro-democracy groups with deep suspicion, routinely denouncing them as meddlers or spies – and sometimes directly harassing their staffers. But Egypt’s move breaks new ground in announcing it wanted to try 19 Americans and several dozen others on charges that have left the Obama administration shocked and surprised – and put the major American military aid program to Egypt at risk as well.
In the wake of the announcement of the charges, the Egyptian government quickly recalled a senior military aid delegation that was just about to begin some intensive discussions with members of Congress. The charges, as they were publicly announced, included operating without licenses, “conducting research to send to the United States” and supporting Egyptian candidates and parties “to serve foreign interests”. The fresh winds of last year’s Arab Spring and the heady embrace of the ideas of Gene Sharpe and Saul Alinsky and the power of the Internet, satellite TV and social media appear to have shifted more than just a bit.
In response, the IRI and NDI have argued their activities consisted of teaching the methodologies of grass-roots organising, political campaigns and democratic elections to anyone willing to listen, just as they have been doing in other places for years – without favouring any particular Egyptian political faction. An allied group, the Freedom House NGO, said that for its part it had been training young activists and carrying out international exchange programs while another NGO, the International Centre for Journalists, was doing its training on media issues. All four bodies insisted that had been trying to comply with Egyptian laws and be transparent about their activities. As Freedom House executive director David Kramer told reporters, “Everything we did was out in the open.” Where’s the beef?
Oddly, perhaps, the NDI and IRI seem to have come into the sights of prosecutors because of their role in supporting opposition to President Hosni Mubarak, before he fell from power last year. Sinister stuff that. Former chief of intelligence under Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, explained in his court deposition, “Data was collected about the activities of the American Embassy through the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.” Moreover, back in March 2011, when US officials had announced grants of some $65-million to pro-democracy groups, Fayza Abul Naga, Egypt’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation – and a holdover from Mubarak’s regime – had renewed her longstanding campaign against foreign financing. Some analysts speculate she is close to the country’s highest-ranking military figure, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and their relationship is tied up with the crackdown.
Then, in December, Egyptian police raided 17 offices of nongovernmental organisations, including IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, confiscating their computers, money and files. The Egyptian government claimed the groups had violated funding and licensing requirements for non-profit entities. But the IRI and the National Democratic Institute say they had been permitted to be observers during parliamentary elections and that the Egyptian government had accepted Freedom House’s registration paperwork three days before the office raids.
The funding regulations that led to the criminal probe were actually passed in the Mubarak era to prevent his opponents from receiving outside assistance. The National Democratic Institute had worked in Egypt under the former president but, like many such organisations, had been careful not to run afoul of Mubarak’s intelligence services. In a statement Sunday, the National Democratic Institute added that it had applied for its registration through the ministry of foreign affairs back in 2005 and it had fulfilled all of the registration requirements for the last six years.
These charges appear to have exposed divisions between the transitional government and the military, as well as between the Pentagon and Congress in the US – and between the two nations – thereby threatening military assistance and adding an irritant to the ties between the two nations. As one senior US official told the media, “It’s our sense that much of the NGO issue in Egypt has a lot to do with internal politics. The Egyptian military leadership is watching that trend very closely, and thus may not want to act too hastily to intervene.”
One analyst, Michele Dunne, the Atlantic Council’s Egypt specialist, argues that with the military in a confusing, tangled power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi Islamists and the pro-democracy activists who led the Tahrir Square protests, it is possible military leaders are using the criminal investigation to weaken the Tahrir activists. Dunne added however, “It is puzzling that the generals have let it go this far. How in the world do they think the Obama administration can deliver military assistance to them in this situation?” (Dunne has a pointed interest in this question since her husband, Freedom House’s Middle East head, was one of those charged, although he was in the US at the time, like many of the charged, when the indictments were made public.)
While the transitional government in Egypt has said it cannot interfere in these judicial matters, a pair of Egyptian diplomats recently told Reuters they believe Egypt’s ruling generals now want to racket back the tensions created by these indictments – so as to keep the $1.3-billion in annual US military aid flowing and also to get some US help with vital IMF support. Adding a particular piquant flavour to the whole Gordian knot is that one of the individuals – the head of the IRI – to be charged (now in refuge within the US Embassy) is the son of the US secretary of transportation, Sam LaHood.
But maybe this whole thing is more than just the jockeying for power among the newly emerging power elites in Egypt – or a way to put military assistance in play as a way to keep the military in check. Paul Sullivan, a Georgetown University expert on the Egyptian military, cautions against interpreting the charges as simply some murky high-level pushing and shoving. Sullivan says Egyptians are particularly wary of any undue influence from the United States, a country they remember as having been a key support of the Mubarak regime. Sullivan says, “I understand the purpose of the NDI and the IRI. But this is a newly freed state and a very brittle and emotional environment. It’s not the best environment for them to work. How would we react if a foreign country came here to teach us how to conduct elections?” On the other hand, John Prados, a historian of the CIA, says, “These institutions are not going out on the street to buy votes, which is what the CIA did. The Egyptians are way over the top here. They’re chasing ghosts.”
Regardless, many Egyptians from various backgrounds seem to share the military-led government’s suspicions of the motives of the American colossus. The New York Times quotes one activist, for example, who said, “Eighty percent of the people think this is America’s work,” as he surveyed the wreckage left on his street after nearly a week of clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo. He adds, “America does not like Islam.” And some members of the newly constituted parliament have told the Egyptian reporters that they look forward to the results of the investigation, arguing the US is at fault for violating local laws that barred foreign financing of non-profits. Previously, that newspaper had reported various groups and individuals directly involved in the Arab Spring, including the April 6 Youth Movement, had taken part in training by these American groups, a development that was not viewed with total equanimity by many Egyptians.
Although there is limited survey data on Egyptian political attitudes, an IRI survey conducted in April 2011 indicated that while Egyptians were then positive about the emerging direction of the country, they were deeply concerned by economic, crime and security issues. More recent Gallup polling in the country now shows a growing majority is worried about foreign influences and involvement in Egypt’s political evolution. The Gallup poll data indicated 71% of Egyptians surveyed said they opposed US economic aid to Egypt and 74% added they were not in favour of the United States sending direct aid to non-governmental organisations in the country.
The most recent reports now indicate the face-off may be abating – this time. Egyptian officials have said their government will stand down in this dispute out of concern that a continuation of the standoff could jeopardise billions of dollars of US aid, Reuters has reported. But Georgetown University’s Sullivan cautions, “My sense is that the Egyptian revolution has only just begun.”
And of those who were being charged? What do they say? Freedom House’s Sherif Mansour wrote an extended column for Foreign Policy’s online presence in which he argued his work was both lawful and patriotic. Mansour wrote, “For the past five years, I have been an employee of Freedom House, managing programs that empower young advocates of democracy and human rights in Egypt and the Middle East.”
“I was born in Egypt, and I started my human rights career working at the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, Egypt’s oldest human rights organisation, where I led a national coalition of NGOs to monitor the elections in 2005. I moved to the United States in 2006 to escape President Hosni Mubarak’s increasing harassment, including media attacks and security interrogations. Yet of my 10 years of work as a human rights activist, during which time I have been repeatedly defamed and wrongly accused, these latest charges have been the most ridiculous.”
“The Egyptian government’s claims that this case is about respecting the ‘rule of law’ or protecting ‘state sovereignty,’ as reported in the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, are dangerously misleading. The laws the government is using against us are remnants of the Mubarak political system… The investigation is part of a wider crackdown on Egyptian civil society that has taken place over the past six months.”
As a result of all this, it seems increasingly likely Egyptians (and Americans) will need to fasten their seatbelts for an increasingly bumpy transition in Egypt’s future political order. And this will be playing out in a Middle East that is increasingly less and less predictable. DM
Photo: Is there growing mistrust in Egypt over American influence, or is the NED being persecuted as part of a wider plan to repress Egyptian civil society? REUTERS.
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.