Boys walk past a mural and Arabic writing that reads, ‘Mina Daniel movement, stay home February 11th, general strike’, in Cairo on Thursday. Egypt is refusing to back down in a dispute with the US over Cairo’s crackdown on non-profit groups despite Washington’s threats to cut aid. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Michael McFaul was in the second day of his new job as US ambassador to Russia last month when Russian state television charged he was on a mission to stir up revolution.

The evidence? Among the reasons cited was McFaul's work in Russia in 1992 for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US pro-democracy organisation the Russian television commentator alleged was "close" to US intelligence agencies.

In another part of the world, Egypt recently took its long-term hostility to the NDI and other US government-funded democracy-building groups to a whole new level.

Egyptian authorities raided the groups' offices and placed travel bans on at least 19 US citizens. The cases have been referred to criminal court.

For decades, US organisations such as the NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House have promoted democracy and human rights around the world, from Russia and other former Soviet states to the nations swept by the "Arab spring" upheavals of the past year.

But some of their activities, such as monitoring elections and helping to develop political parties, are not universally appreciated in host countries. In nations where the transition to democracy is incomplete, the welcome mat can be quite small.

Governments in places such as Egypt, which is still run by military rulers, and Russia, which has been dominated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for over a decade, often see democracy-building activities as a threat to their grip on power.

"Authoritarian regimes don't like sharing power with their people — and they look for any excuse to distract from their problems at home," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress think tank who worked for NDI in the West Bank, Gaza and Cairo from 1995 to 1998.

And the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which sparked deadly sectarian warfare and messy American attempts to build an Iraqi democracy, sparked a decline in global trust in US pro-democracy efforts, experts said.

"In the best circumstances — think sub-Saharan Africa — the US used to be relatively trusted for its far-sighted engagement on all three development fronts - economics, politics and security," said Paul O'Brien, vice president of policy and advocacy at Oxfam America, an international relief organisation.

"As our overall global development agenda has become more short-term and politicised to achieve narrower national interests — think Iraq and Afghanistan — our pro-democracy agenda is less trusted too," he said.


Some critics of US democracy-building groups say hostility can extend beyond autocrats to average people who don't want foreigners telling them how to run their lives.

"Egyptians have always been suspicious of outsiders meddling. In Egypt, such meddling is called the ‘invisible hand' or ‘foreign fingers'," said Paul Sullivan, a professor and Middle East expert at Georgetown University. "Any organisation that is there to work on the development of voting and political parties is leaving itself open to those suspicions and considerable risk — and not just from the courts and the police," Sullivan said.

NDI president Ken Wollack denies his organisation is meddling, or trying to foment revolution or regime change in any country. "We don't support revolution" he said. NDI's programmes have always been intended "to support a democratic elections process that reflected the will of the people."

"People can claim that it's meddling, but it's based on certain fundamental principles," he said, including a universal declaration of human rights adopted by the United Nations.

In Egypt, he said, "Obviously it's a delicate time, but I think that we're hoping that through this challenging period that it ultimately will lead to a constructive dialogue between the authorities and groups like ours."

"These [pro-democracy] organisations do not dictate what kind of leadership, or what kind of elections or the results of the elections," said Senator John McCain, chairman of the board of IRI. "But they help with voter registration, with campaigning, with constitutions, with all the things that are the fundamentals of democracy," McCain said in a Senate hallway.


The US confrontation with Egypt over its treatment of pro-democracy groups is threatening longstanding US ties with that country. US military aid to Egypt, about $1.3 billlion annually in recent years, is in jeopardy, Congress and the Obama administration say. Lawmakers are furious with the Egyptians; Senator John Kerry called the idea that Americans would be prosecuted there a "slap in the face."

A solution has not yet been found. But in the longer term, after the crisis with Egypt, the US may want to re-examine how it funds pro-democracy groups, perhaps channelling more money to local ones in the countries concerned, suggested Julie Taylor, a political scientist focusing on Middle East at Rand Corporation.

Washington (Reuters) Since their founding under President Ronald Reagan, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have worked in more than 100 countries around the world. They have loose ties with the two major American political parties, but are not funded by them. Freedom House is older, dating back to the 1940s.

The groups are known as "non-governmental organisations," but get most of their funding from the US government — largely from the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. The government funding has sometimes fuelled the charge that they are an arm of the US government, or stooges of its intelligence agencies.

Starting around 2005, a backlash emerged in some countries, especially Russia, but also in Central Asia, China and parts of Africa and Latin America, said Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on democracy promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The backlash seems to have been at least in part a response to a new harsher perception of democracy promotion due to its close association with the war in Iraq," Carothers said.

He cited former president George W. Bush saying the Iraq war "was all about democracy promotion — as well as the belief by some governments that the ‘colour' revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were caused by US assistance to political and civic actors in those countries," he said.

Modest helping hand

However, he added, the US efforts in Georgia and Ukraine "were at most a modest helping hand to domestic political actors who did the hard work and took the risks themselves."

Political tumult in Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade became known as the "Rose" and "Orange" revolutions, respectively.