Americans in Egypt

by Stanley Meisler

February 29, 2012

For many years, I have felt that the American way of democracy, with its federalism and checks & balances, could serve as a helpful model for peoples trying to forge some way of democracy for themselves. This is especially true in countries of the developing world that have to reconcile competing and sometimes conflicting tribes and religions.

The Americans on trial in Cairo obviously agreed with me and were trying to impart some aspects of the American way to Egyptians about to embark on the democratic adventure. It would be a great travesty if the Americans were jailed for their efforts. Egypt would deserve the condemnation that would surely spew forth from irate Americans if their compatriots were punished so severely.

Yet there is more to the case than a clash between American idealism and Egyptian stupidity. Smugness may be clouding our perception. Though Americans have trouble understanding why, many outsiders, even the most fair-minded, do not always see our way as the best.

Take the Dragon Lady in the case, Fayza Abul Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation and the main accuser. She is regarded as a crony of the ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak who somehow managed to hang on to her cabinet post in the interim military government. This description, repeated often in news stories, makes it seem as if she is leading some kind of quixotic Mubarak charge against democracy.

Abul Naga had a chance to experience American democracy during the 1990s when she was a close adviser to Boutros Boutros-Ghali during his five year term as UN secretary-general in New York. Describing her as “once my student and now a brilliant young Egyptian diplomat,” he plucked her out of the Egyptian foreign ministry in 1992 for the job. There was no doubt that she was one of the few people at the UN who had his unwavering trust.

Although I had a couple of conversations with Fayza in those days when I covered the UN for the Los Angeles Times, we did not discuss her views of the United States and its democracy. Yet there is no doubt that it was an uncomfortable time for a confidante of Boutros-Ghali to see American democracy in action.

When 18 American troops died in a firefight in Somalia in 1993, the Clinton Administration, concerned about American public opinion, shamelessly blamed Boutros-Ghali even though the soldiers had been under American not UN command. In another ploy to placate the American electorate, Washington continually berated Boutros-Ghali throughout the Bosnian war for failing to bomb the Serbs even though US officials knew he was trying to protect the French and British peacekeeping troops on the ground.

Even his name became an issue in the 1996 presidential election — an odd lesson in democracy. Patrick Buchanan, running for the Republican nomination, regularly denounced the secretary-general as “Boo Boo Ghali.” Bob Dole, who did win the nomination, aroused lofty cheers whenever he condemned “Booootros-Booootros Ghali.” Dole vowed, if elected, never to let the secretary-general decide where to send American troops — a nonsensical vow since no secretary-general ever had that kind of power.

Later that year, after the reelection of President Clinton, the UN Security Council voted 14 to one to keep Boutros-Ghali for a second term. The single negative vote was cast by Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador. Since the United States has the power of veto in the Security Council, her vote ended the UN careers of both Boutros-Ghali and Abul Naga.

There is a long history of foolish American interference in the politics of foreign friends, and it should not be surprising that some Egyptians are wary, wondering what all these Americans are up to. The stated goals of the American democratic projects in Egypt are rather vague so it is hard to figure out what the work was like on the ground. A cynic might wonder, in view of what has been going on in the Senate in Washington, what one of the offending groups, the International Republican Institute, which is staffed by the Republican Party, could contribute to the Egyptian understanding of democracy.

It is not very helpful to know that the International Republican Institute, in one of its worldwide programs, tried “to identify potential future leaders of developing democracies and provide them with knowledge of economic governance through an exchange program...” In the case of Egypt, for example, did the Republicans select all “potential future leaders” or only those from secular, non-Islamist parties? This is a logical question when you think about the history of these kind of programs.

The democracy projects, though they have nothing to do with the CIA now, have their root in the agency’s battle against communism during the Cold War. The CIA in those days set up a group of phoney foundations to funnel US government funds to various private groups that might help the cause. In some cases, the recipients were willing warriors. The AFL-CIO, its international relations led by rabid anti-communists Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown, had no qualms about taking the money and entering the fray.

Brown, backed by CIA funds, helped prevent the communists from taking over the unions in France in ferocious labor battling just after World War II. In more questionable meddling, the AFL-CIO used CIA funds to foment local strikes in British Guiana that kept the popular but leftist Cheddi Jagan from taking power.

In other cases, the CIA, using its front foundations, sent subsidies to organizations and magazines that may not have realized the source of the funds. Two magazines, Encounter in London and Transition in Africa, were chosen by the CIA not because they were rabidly anti-communist but because they were non-communist publications of quality that might leave a dangerous void for communists if they disappeared.

Revelations in the late 1960s about the CIA’s secret funding of private groups embarrassed some of the recipients and angered Congress, and Congress put an end to the program. More than a decade later, during the Reagan Administration, Congress decided to substitute a new non-secret, non-CIA program to fund pro-democracy projects throughout the world.

A National Endowment for Democracy was created to distribute funds mainly to four organizations: two run by the main political parties, one by the AFL-CIO, and one by representatives of private enterprise. The organizations are now known as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, and the Center for International Private Enterprise.

The program got off to an anachronistic and ludicrous start. In 1985, the endowment dispatched $1.5 million to the AFL-CIO institute to defend democracy in France. The labor movement’s man in Paris, Irving Brown, relayed most of the national endowment’s grant to the anti-communist Force Ouvrière, one of three main trade union federations in France (the other two had ties to the Communist and Socialist parties).

But he diverted almost $600,000 to an extreme right wing student group that used it to inundate Paris with posters and pamphlets attacking François Mitterand, the socialist president of France. This sudden activity prompted the Paris newspaper Liberation to investigate and then publish an eight-page expose under the headline, “The Secret Funds of Reagan in France.”

The campaign raised two troubling questions. Did France really need American help to defend its democracy? Why were U.S. government funds being used to denigrate the president of a friendly ally? The pugnacious and combative Brown, now 74 years old, was unrepentant. In his mind, Mitterrand was endangering democracy by accepting the support of the small Communist party.

“France is not threatened by the 10% vote of the Communist Party,” he told me in an interview. “It is threatened by the communist apparatus. Is it a clear and present danger? It is a clear and present danger if the present is thought of as ten years from now.” Although the Cold War had not yet ended when Brown talked to me, his words still had a hoary tone.

Since then, the National Endowment for Democracy has managed to stay out of similar embarrassments. The program, in fact, has expanded. The State Department and the Agency for International Development (AID) now supplement the endowment by directly funding democracy projects of the endowment’s four constituent organizations. The endowment, State and AID also subsidize the projects of other organizations in addition to the favored four.

In Egypt, the indicted Americans worked for the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, which runs a project in Egypt funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Center for Journalists, which receives a third of its funds directly from the US government.

A fifth organization accused in the case is the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is run by the Christian Democratic Party of Germany and financed by the German government. There is an interesting aside to this: the German system of setting up foundations financed by the government but staffed by the political parties was the model used to create the American democracy groups in the 1980s.

While it would be unjust to jail the Americans and the others in the case, there is no doubt that the democracy projects have to shut down in Egypt. There is no excuse for us spreading our brand of democracy in Egypt unless the Egyptians want us. It is clear they do not. In an era when the dictatorship is gone and people seem unafraid to shout their views, it is remarkable how few voices have been raised in defense of the American groups.

That’s not surprising. We Americans would be irate if we found some foreign outfit in our midst spending money to improve our democracy. I am not even sure it would be legal. Perhaps it is a time for a reexamination of our democracy programs worldwide to make sure they are both popular and, of course, useful.

February 29, 2012
Washington DC

see also:

Washington Out of Whack
August 4, 2011

The Filibuster in the Broken Senate
March 7, 2010

The Revenge of Boutros Boutros-Ghali
July 21, 1999

Getting Rid of Boutros-Ghali
October 18, 1996

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© 1996 - Stanley Meisler. All Rights Reserved.