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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.

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Had I remembered wrong? Or been told something that wasn't true in 2006? (I hadn't spent much time on this.) I emailed NDI's Washington-based head of public relations Kathy Gest and asked: "Are you absolutely sure NDI has never been asked by [Egypt] to suspend work before? I'm fairly sure that happened in 2006, though IRI's relationship with the Egyptian government was worse."

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She responded: "NDI has never received any formal communication from the Egyptian government telling it to cease work or leave the country." I replied to that: "How about informally? I was told they were quite sternly told to back off at the time." Ms. Gest responded to that: "NDI has never been told previously, formally or informally, by any Egyptian official to close our office or leave the country."

I started asking around, since I'd have to make a correction to two stories if this were so. Two friends from Egypt remembered events much as I had, and one suggested that I search the US diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks. There were numerous cables related to the incident.

One from September 2006 says "The (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) official in charge of registration of foreign NGOs has said the freeze on activities by IRI, NDI, and IFES, as well as the issue of their pending legal registration in Egypt, could best be resolved by a "high level" overture from the (US government) to the (government of Egypt)" and that "IRI's May public relations activities were the proximate cause of the GOE's June freeze on IRI, NDI, and IFES." Another cable from March 2007 says Egyptian government "officials have stopped short of formally expelling the institutes, but have said that "any activities" by the organizations in Egypt are now "unacceptable.""

That cable goes on: "prior to the June 2006 freeze on activities, the institutes had operated openly, albeit with a minimal media presence, with the tacit approval of the (government of Egypt), while awaiting a formal decision on the registrations. After the June 2006 freeze, prompted in large measure by an IRI media event, the institutes dramatically scaled back their operations, but continued to build contacts with Egyptian civil society and otherwise position themselves for the relaunch of regular operations."

In August 2007, the US embassy reported that the groups were setting up operations outside of Egypt to work with Egyptian groups. "NDI and IFES also continue to explore the limits of the possible within the limited space that the (government of Egypt) has permitted for them. NDI staff has been meeting with advocacy groups and civil society organizations outside of Cairo in preparation for planned offshore activities to build their capacity," says that cable.

NDI and IRI eventually worked out a modus vivendi with the Egyptian state and its security services. A September 2008 cable reports: "An National Democratic Institute (NDI) resident representative Lila Jaafar told us September 16 that in spite of NDI's lack of official registration, the organization provided training and publications to local NGOs over the past year by adopting a low-profile posture and informing State Security Investigative Services (SSIS) of NDI activities in advance."

All this background is a reminder that democracy promotion in Egypt was controversial under Mubarak – and to the generals now running the country, at least, it remains controversial. I'm not sure why NDI doesn't remember all this. But six years later, neither NDI or IRI have their licenses approved.

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