Outrage over Egypt's arrest of NGO workers, but US would have done the same
The outrage over Egypt's arrest of 43 NGO workers, at least 16 of whom are American, is understandable and well deserved. But it also speaks to a little acknowledged paradox: These organizations are conducting democracy-building work that would never be tolerated in the US.
The past few months have not been kind to foreign nationals looking to promote democracy in Egypt. Despite the Arab Spring, post-Mubarak authorities have been slow to embrace the onslaught of aid that invariably follows “democratic” revolution.Skip to next paragraph
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In fact, they have been outright hostile. Earlier this month, 43 aid workers (including at least 16 Americans) were reportedly charged with channeling funds to Egyptian nonprofit groups – an act that, while technically illegal, was tacitly condoned under the Mubarak government. At the center of the political storm are the American “party institutes” – the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI).
The outrage from these organizations, the US, and Europe is understandable and well deserved. But it also speaks to a little acknowledged paradox: For all their good intentions, these organizations are conducting work that would never be tolerated in the US and Western Europe. Foreign support for political parties and electoral campaigns would enrage millions of Americans.
The charges against these groups came on the heels of the months-long persecution of Egypt’s democracy promotion community that began this past December, when the offices of 17 foreign nongovernmental organizations were raided by Egyptian security forces. In the weeks since, Egyptian officials have played it coy. First implying that the NGO shutdowns were a mere misunderstanding, they have since refused to grant them legal permission to operate, and have orchestrated a media attack resembling a witch-hunt.
Understandably, these groups are incensed by Egypt’s latest moves. So are foreign dignitaries. The past few days have witnessed a litany of indignant statements issued by, among others, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and even The New York Times. Tensions have mounted so fast and furiously that some even suggest that the 30-year old alliance between Egypt and the United States hangs in the balance.
But should Washington really be surprised? Just consider how the mere allegation of foreign interference in US campaigns has been greeted: In 1996, rumors that Chinese authorities were covertly financing the Democratic National Committee caused a national uproar, culminating in a series of high-profile congressional investigations and 22 convictions of fraud. And when in 2003 allegations surfaced that Swedes and Canadians were contributing money to MoveOn.org, foreigners were accused of plotting to undermine George W. Bush’s re-election. Within days, MoveOn took steps to ban foreign contributions.
Indeed, many democracies have some form of legislation forbidding foreigners from making financial or material donations to domestic political parties. Given their potential to influence and thus, obstruct the will of the people, such donations are believed to be at odds with the democratic process.