US democracy NGOs in Egypt still shuttered

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

Ann Hermes/Staff
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.

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. 

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."

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."

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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