Another sad tale of why it IS hard to support democracy from inside the Beltway in Washington . . .

“Democracy Digest” from the National Endowment of Democracy reports on a perplexing problem that anyone who is interested in democracy support or promotion should give some serious attention to:

. . . But as President Barack Obama was telling the ruling military [in Egypt] to stop harassing pro-democracy groups, powerful lobbyists were pressing the regime’s case in Washington.

Egyptian security forces seized computers, documents, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash in December 29 raids on the offices of pro-democracy NGOs, including several Egyptian groups as well as the US-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House.

“The lobbyists quickly mobilized to provide Egypt with political cover, touching off a behind-the-scenes battle between K Street interests and U.S. officials — with potentially huge implications for the critical U.S.-Egyptian relationship,” Politico reports.

A lobbyist working for the Livingston Group immediately circulated talking points — which some Capitol Hill insiders suspect were drafted by Egyptian officials in Washington — claiming that the IRI and NDI were operating outside Egyptian law. These lobbyists vehemently opposed any calls for cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt. The United States gives Egypt roughly $2 billion per year in aid, mainly as military assistance.

“[There] are foreign NGOs working in Egypt without being licensed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social Solidarity. Under this category falls NDI and IRI,” the talking points stated, which were obtained by POLITICO. “No organizations, entities or individuals, national or foreign, should be allowed to operate outside the law.”

IRI, NDI and Freedom House have pushed back hard, with help from their own high-profile supporters. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the chairman of IRI’s board of directors, while Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and a particular target of Egyptian ire, runs its program there. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is the head of NDI’s board, with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) serving as a vice chairman.

“I think what’s concerning about this, about where we are right now, is you have American citizens being hauled into the Egyptian Ministry of Justice and questioned, interrogated, and at the same time, you have American citizens — lobbyists — lobbying on Egypt’s behalf,” said Scott Mastic, IRI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “It’s very distressing.”

“I think a lot of people were very angry to see Livingston up here lobbying for the Egyptians after all this,” a congressional source told Politico. “Some people up here are pretty pissed.”

“To be prosecuted now strikes us as 100 percent political,” said Les Campbell, NDI’s Middle East program director. “This is more about what is happening in Egypt, and we’re caught in a Catch-22.”

For the record I had an entirely positive experience running the NED-funded portion of the IRI Kenya programming when I was Resident Director of the IRI East Africa office–the controversy that we ended up having was strictly about the Kenyan election observation and exit poll that the Ambassador got funding for through USAID which did not involve NED at all.

At the same time, it has to be noted that IRI certainly has Americans who are lobbyists for foreign governments on its board — including the board member who was the lead delegate for the Kenya election observation. What is being done to IRI and NDI–most especially to their local staffs who don’t have the protections associated with American citizenship–is to me very wrong and unfortunate. But what thuggish foreign government that can afford it does not hire one or more lobbyists in Washington to represent its interests (including opposing pressure for democratic reforms) unless it is prohibited by U.S. law from doing so?

We all read about the Abramoff scandals, etc., etc. I have noted here before some of the people who served this role for the Moi regime in Kenya at the same time IRI was doing an election observation back in 1992. Yes, it would be nice if Americans refused to do this work for foreign governments working at cross purposes with our professed values and our stated policies, but that just does not appear to be a realistic thing to hope for given the long track record of how these things work–this is not a new problem. [Update–it appears that the “naming and shaming” approach may have borne fruit in this case: “Lobbyists Drop Egypt’s Government as Client”, NYTimes.]

2 thoughts on “Another sad tale of why it IS hard to support democracy from inside the Beltway in Washington . . .

  1. Pingback: NDI E-news: Egypt, Libya, Haiti | January 2012 « The Communicator

  2. Pingback: Reviewing USAID Democracy and Governance Support in Egypt | AfriCommons Blog

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