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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.

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Yet in more than 100 countries, the party institutes come close to doing precisely that: They offer training, strategic campaign advice, material assistance, and in rare instances, financial support to political parties with the express purpose of influencing their work and conduct.

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To their credit, they have often done important work: They’ve helped build anti-authoritarian political coalitions, trained tens of thousands of election monitors, and worked to promote the role of women and youth within political parties. All of this is sorely needed in non-democratic and newly democratic contexts. But it doesn’t negate the fact that these foreign organizations are interfering with other countries’ electoral processes in ways that Americans would be reluctant to accept back at home.

Of course, these organizations argue that their assistance is nonpartisan and nongovernmental. Both claims are only partially true, however.

Let’s take their assertions of nonpartisanship. Both NDI and IRI say they don’t pick sides, yet their work in places like Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine has been credited with toppling dictators. They say that they don’t provide financial assistance. But they admit to having paid for parties’ rent, computers, and even campaign commercials. Precisely because of the highly partisan nature of these interventions, countries like Belarus and Russia have long engaged in a “backlash against democracy promotion.”

And are they really nongovernmental? Although these organizations call themselves NGOs, the reality is far more ambiguous. Both NDI and IRI receive the great bulk of their funding from government sources. Their boards are run by current and former US government operatives and party professionals. In the field, their resident directors often have little choice but to toe the State Department line. Ultimately, the Institutes are – like all forms of foreign aid – instruments of US foreign policy.

And let us not forget the dubious record of this policy in Egypt. For 30 years, US aid to Egypt was bent on bolstering the Mubarak regime. For 30 years, America funded its dictatorship, and supported its military. Surely, Egyptians can’t be blamed for questioning the integrity of America’s commitment to their democracy. Indeed, whatever the ultimate outcome of the current aid debacle, it will take much more than $1.5 billion in aid to alter the legacy of America’s decades-long support for Egypt’s autocracy.

This does not excuse the actions of Egyptian authorities. What they have done – and continue to do – is wrong. But Washington shouldn’t be surprised. After all, as instruments of foreign policy, party institutes are charged not only with promoting democracy, but also with promoting foreign interests. This would and should raise questions everywhere. It certainly would in our own backyard.

Marlene Spoerri is a contributing editor for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and the author of the forthcoming manuscript “Aiding Parties and Bringing Down Dictators: Promoting Democracy in the former Yugoslavia.”


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