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US democracy NGOs in Egypt still shuttered

Making life hard for NGOs, particularly foreign ones, has long been a sport in Egypt.

By Staff writer / January 6, 2012

Members of the Tadawo Association, an NGO in Cairo, meet in a classroom to discuss upcoming volunteer projects in Cairo, in this Sept. 25, 2011 file photo. The group of 200 students from various universities take on projects in health and social care working to provide medical assistance to those who can't afford it, to help those that the government will not, according to group leaders.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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In late December, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 10 NGOs, charging that they were illegally receiving foreign funding. Among them were two of the United States' biggest democracy promotion groups. 

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The International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), though independent, have close ties to the US government, with most of their funding coming from the National Endowment for Democracy. Their local operations were shuttered, and their computers, documents, and cash were hauled away by armed Egyptian government agents. The US-based Freedom House, the Konrad Adenauer Institute of Germany, and a number of NGO's working on judicial reform and democracy were also raided.

It was a stark illustration of the fact that while Hosni Mubarak is gone, much remains the same in Egypt, where a military junta, suspicious of outsiders and jealously protecting its own prerogatives, is currently running the show. I helped write a couple of pieces on the recent raids and noted, briefly, that IRI and NDI were shut down in 2006, largely over the same kinds of complaints that Egypt's junta is making today: They aren't licensed and their foreign funding amounts to harmful meddling in Egypt's internal affairs.

Though the two groups are connected to the major political parties in the US, their work abroad is similar and the domestic political differences between Republicans and Democrats are irrelevant to IRI and NDI. They focus on voter education, teaching political parties how to craft platforms, conduct focus groups, and much of the other grunt work that goes into political campaigning. But Egyptian officials (indeed, officials in many other countries) have frequently complained about their efforts, portraying them in some cases as subversive.

I was living in Egypt in 2006, and wrote briefly about the problems for the US NGOs then, which started after IRI Egypt director Gina London was quoted in a local paper in May 2006 saying they were carrying on with their work there despite the failure of the government to grant them a license. Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit personally called the State Department to complain and the two groups' operations, as well as the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) were shut down for a number of months.

So I was surprised, and a little worried, to see a press release from NDI on Jan. 2 that sought to clear up "numerous false or misleading allegations related to NDI's status in Egypt" and that said among other things that "at no time was NDI asked to stop its work or close its office" in Egypt between the time it submitted an application in 2005 and late December of last year. The group also complained that "it is regrettable and ironic that the money taken from NDI’s Cairo office was to be used to support an international election delegation that was accredited by the Government of Egypt to witness the third stage of the People’s Assembly elections."

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