Is Egypt a Democracy? Their Treatment of U.S. NGOs Highlights That They Still Have Work to Do


Egyptians recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the historic collapse of the Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year reign. But in the wake of the anniversary, the relationship between Egypt and America seems shaky. Seven Americans associated with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) are under investigation by the new government based on the NGO Law and suspicion of “foreign interference in elections.”

The NGO Law is considered a Mubarak-era policy, however the Muslim Brotherhood has also spoken out in support. The adverse treatment of NGO’s in Egypt reflects a lingering authoritarian influence and a growing animosity towards American interventionism.

The ramifications of the raids on IRI and NDI are certainly problematic. However, they also indicate Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ acute awareness of the nature of these organizations. The 2000’s were a decade of transcontinental regime-toppling and democratizing, more commonly known as the Color Revolutions. The Color Revolutions signaled the willingness of America to identify and exploit weaknesses in authoritarian regimes by aiding resistance movements. Both NDI and IRI played pivotal roles in toppling governments in Slovakia, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Other authoritarian governments have noticed the common denominator between regime toppling and these NGOs that were permitted to function within their borders. Like Egypt, both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan witnessed the role of these organizations in other states and took the steps to either not register them or shut them down. Similarly, the Freedom House Index does not consider Uzbekistan or Tajikistan free, either.

Despite the inspiring democracy protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square last year, the persona non grata attitude toward IRI and NDI are a dead giveaway that authoritarianism is still alive and well. A brief look at the mission statements of IRI and NDI would be enough to scare any power-monger. Both organizations promise to increase the voice of “disenfranchised and minority populations,” while also training citizens to become “government watchdogs and advocates of transparency.” Keeping certain populations marginalized and maintaining secrecy about government operations is an authoritarian imperative.

It is apparent that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces views NGO’s as a threat to their continued supremacy, but it is also indicative of an evolving paradigm in U.S.-Egypt relations. Simply put, the rejection of American NGO’s is a rejection of American interventionist policy. The U.S. has employed NGO’s to serve as proxies in the War on Terror, but under the guise of democratizing.

As Julia Buxton, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Cooperation and Security points out, “democracy promotion is the mechanism for safeguarding global and national security from terrorism.” The U.S. commitment to this policy translates into extensive funding via the State Department. Even the IRI admits, “less than one percent of its budget comes from private donors.”

Since the raid on IRI and NDI, the U.S. has threatened to discontinue funding to Egypt to the tune of $1.3 billion. This action alone reveals the importance of NGO’s in the high stakes game of global hegemon maintenance. Overall, The volatile nature of democratizing ensures the occasional snafu. After 30 years of authoritarian power, democratic engagement in Egypt is a totally organic substance.  However, such an overt affront to democratic assistance indicates that advancement in Egypt is overrated.

Hosni Mubarak’s influence is still at large, and the U.S. must reevaluate how to go forward.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons