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Outrage over Egypt's arrest of NGO workers, but US would have done the same

The outrage over Egypt's arrest of 43 NGO workers, at least 16 of whom are American, is understandable and well deserved. But it also speaks to a little acknowledged paradox: These organizations are conducting democracy-building work that would never be tolerated in the US.

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Egyptian military stand guard as officials raid one of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) offices in Cairo, Egypt Dec. 29, 2011. Despite US threats to cut aid, Egyptian judges are not backing off in their case against 43 NGO workers, including at least 16 Americans, for alleged involvement in banned political activities using foreign funds.

Mohammed Asad/AP Photo

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The past few months have not been kind to foreign nationals looking to promote democracy in Egypt. Despite the Arab Spring, post-Mubarak authorities have been slow to embrace the onslaught of aid that invariably follows “democratic” revolution. 

In fact, they have been outright hostile. Earlier this month, 43 aid workers (including at least 16 Americans) were reportedly charged with channeling funds to Egyptian nonprofit groups – an act that, while technically illegal, was tacitly condoned under the Mubarak government. At the center of the political storm are the American “party institutes” – the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI).

The outrage from these organizations, the US, and Europe is understandable and well deserved. But it also speaks to a little acknowledged paradox: For all their good intentions, these organizations are conducting work that would never be tolerated in the US and Western Europe. Foreign support for political parties and electoral campaigns would enrage millions of Americans.

The charges against these groups came on the heels of the months-long persecution of Egypt’s democracy promotion community that began this past December, when the offices of 17 foreign nongovernmental organizations were raided by Egyptian security forces. In the weeks since, Egyptian officials have played it coy. First implying that the NGO shutdowns were a mere misunderstanding, they have since refused to grant them legal permission to operate, and have orchestrated a media attack resembling a witch-hunt.

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