Egypt's NGO Suspicions

January 27, 2012 Topic: Domestic PoliticsForeign Aid Region: Egypt

Egypt's NGO Suspicions

Erstwhile promoters of democracy and human rights or agents of American hegemony? To the government in Cairo, the answer is all too clear.


Late last month, Egyptian security forces raided offices of Egyptian and foreign nongovernmental organizations, confiscating computers, records and funds. Foreign entities included those funded directly from U.S. budgets, the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House, as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Prominent Egyptian human-rights organizations were accused of taking dollars and euros without what military prosecutors deemed proper authorization.

Officials in Washington, Berlin and London expressed alarm and dismay that democracy-building organizations would be subject to search and seizure, especially by a regime that receives so much Western military and economic aid. Bracing for a new round in long struggle over foreign funding of NGOs, which took an ominous twist after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took charge last February 11—but had caused trouble for them throughout Hosni Mubarak’s rule—Egyptian defendants were angry but not surprised. The official backlash against democracy promotion may be getting worse, but it is not new.


During last winter’s eighteen-day intifada, rumors were planted about foreign provocateurs. The international English-language press unwittingly fed these allegations. Their reports that Western democracy promoters nurtured fledgling democrats, sending a handful of young activists to study nonviolent resistance with the Serbian organization OPTOR, were recycled in the Arabic-language media.

Complicating matters, London and Washington decided to fast-track small grants to liberal groups, skirting labyrinthine Egyptian channels for the distribution of foreign aid. The Obama administration earmarked some $65 million for quick direct support to NGOs working on initiatives like training election monitors, educating voters and documenting human-rights violations. Mubarak-era bureaucrats cited sovereignty in defense of their patronage pyramids and clientalistic licensing procedures. Over the summer, the minister of international cooperation asked military prosecutors to investigate the “unauthorized” transfer of nearly $48 million to fourteen American organizations (including those besieged in December) and $6 million to twelve Egyptian groups not accredited by the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

This was hardly the first fight of its kind. Back in 1993, after an earthquake struck inner Cairo, a military order banned independent relief efforts and imposed a seven-year sentence on anyone caught channeling foreign aid outside the Egyptian Red Crescent/Red Cross, which was headed by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. Along with the byzantine red tape of the ministries of international cooperation and social solidarity, the ban was used against prominent activists like Saad Eddine Ibrahim, an Egyptian American sociology professor imprisoned for using European Union monies to produce a voter-education video. In the following years, the government prosecuted a number of progressive think tanks and advocacy groups and some nonprofits countersued for a right to operate.

Cairo has earned a reputation for obstructing the work of transnational democracy brokers. Though it was an enthusiastic supporter of U.S. positions on peace with Israel and the war on terror, the Mubarak regime objected to a funding conduit known as the Foundation for the Future, proposed by the Bush administration at a Sea Island, Georgia forum in June 2003. For a long time, the European Union, the World Bank and other donors sponsored a campaign to reform Arab NGO laws, including many modeled on Egypt’s, to no avail. The push back against democracy promotion in some two dozen countries ranging from Russia to Zimbabwe was so pronounced that a study was commissioned by Senator Richard J. Lugar in his capacity as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2006. Egypt featured prominently for red-tape restrictions, creative smear campaigns, plainclothes infiltration of freelance political organizations and ersatz “government-organized” NGOs (GO-NGOs).

The Arab Spring of 2011 inflamed sentiments on this polarizing issue. Even on the front lines, many were of two minds. Strangulating laws of association, expression and assembly were among the grievances against the old regime. The armed invasion of premises where the only weapons used were words defied international and even municipal legal norms. For ministerial and military establishments reliant on foreign largess to cry foul over small political projects seemed hypocritical to many and foolhardy to others. Liberal Egyptians working for international organizations saw how the crackdown on Western organizations diverted attention away from another outside influence: the funds flowing from Gulf monarchies to conservatives and counterrevolutionaries in the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements—and perhaps the military as well.

And yet many sophisticated Egyptians reason that Western political projects are ultimately more attuned to NATO security interests than Western ideals. Lots of patriots bridled at foreign meddling, including both foreign support of Mubarak after the fraudulent elections of late 2010 or, as some now insisted, in fomenting mass rebellion. Revolutionaries were insulted by the insinuation that in order to depose Mubarak they should learn from Serbs, who joined a NATO-backed campaign to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.

Local human-rights defenders and democracy promoters were first bemused but later annoyed by academic transitologists—having never having imagined anything like the January 25 revolution, these “revolutionary tourists” now came to lecture Egyptians on democratization. To liberals, leftists and Islamists alike, the whole notion of democracy promotion wreaked of postcolonial missionary zeal and conceit. Association with GO-NGOs like the Republican and Democratic institutes or Freedom House, widely considered a “Zionist” agency, became a greater liability than ever for prodemocracy activists.

Broader populist, possibly xenophobic, suspicions of interlopers were fanned on the evening of December 29 when a bilingual Egyptian American, an erstwhile employee at IRI’s Zamalek office, gave an in-depth interview in Arabic on a TV program called The Truth (al-Haqiqah). She described a glaring anti-Islamist bias in party training, intelligence agents posing as IRI consultants, grant making according to an “American agenda,” deliberate provocation of sectarian divisions between Copts and Muslims and laughing hubris bordering on racism expressed among drunken expats after hours.

Two radically divergent perspectives confront Egyptian democrats these days. Foreign democracy brokers support important work needed to counter praetorian impulses. Foreign agents try to manage Egyptian politics, sometimes clumsily. But progressive intellectuals and activists in Cairo must cope with the ramifications of two story lines that are logically inconsistent but simultaneously plausible.

Cairo’s own democracy promoters must deal with America’s varying motives and hence mixed messages. U.S. military assistance to the tune of $1.3 billion a year, which undoubtedly helped make the SCAF what it is today, dwarfed political aid for democratization. Democratic evangelism was always tempered by fears of Arab populism and Islamist currents. The polyglot, intellectual vanguard of the Tahrir uprising, are more aware than most Americans of the complex interplay of idealism and domination in colonial history, inconsistencies in Palestine and Iraq and endless contestation over “foreign funding of NGOs.”

Eschewing outlandish conspiracy theories, many informed Arabs are convinced by the realist account of American foreign policy as a quest for hegemony over popular rule. And like any political scientist studying an infusion of resources into a competitive environment, they will tell you that the work of democracy promotion is inevitably political—and thus very often contentious.

Sheila Carapico is a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond and a visiting professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

Image: Steve Rhodes