Advocates of democracy in the Middle East have been deeply alarmed since December 29, when Egyptian security forces staged lightning raids on the offices of three American nonprofits that work to promote democracy and fair elections overseas. Egyptian officials say they seized the organizations’ books and computers because they suspect them of fomenting the unrest that led to the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship last year and the imposing of Egypt’s first open, democratic election, which the army has pledged to support after it’s done arresting the people who started it.
In defense of the three organizations, sources in Washington point out that they’re not that good. If Washington had wanted to bring democracy to Egypt, it would have done so the old-fashioned way, by sending the 101st Airborne.
Egypt’s Justice Ministry said it needs to determine where the organizations receive their funding, since political meddling by foreign governments is illegal. According to their websites, two of the three organizations, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, receive their funding from Congress. The third, Freedom House, receives only part of its funding from the federal government. The rest comes from private donations and grants from the Irish, Dutch, Norwegian and British governments as well as from the European Union and the United Nations.
The events point to the stark difference between Egypt, which lacks any tradition of democracy, and Israel, the Middle East’s only functioning democracy. In Israel, non-profits suspected of receiving foreign government funding are asked politely to hand over their books, rather than having them seized in police raids.
More important, Israeli officials are working to restrict foreign government funding of nonprofits that operate under the banner of human rights but actually work toward “influencing political debates” or the “policies of the state of Israel,” in the words of the NGO legislation’s original author, Likud lawmaker Ophir Akunis.
By contrast, Egypt is stifling NGOs that are perfectly open about their goals. The National Democratic Institute, the largest of the congressionally funded groups, said in a statement quoted by Fox News on January 2 that it has been operating in Egypt since 2005, “in an open and transparent manner, working to assist the efforts of political parties and civic organizations.”
It should be pointed out, too, that some Israeli NGOs have been receiving money from France. I don’t think I need to explain what that means.
Democracy in the Arab Middle East has been on an uncertain trajectory since the so-called Arab Spring began one year ago. On February 2, the day after Egypt’s Mubarak announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset that a democratic Egypt “would never be a threat to peace. On the contrary, if we have learned anything from modern history, it is that the stronger the foundations of democracy, the stronger the foundations of peace.”