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US Pro-Democracy Groups Under Fire for Work in Egypt

In this Thursday, December 29, 2011 file photo, workers from one of the US non-governmental organizations, the National Democratic Institute, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo.
In this Thursday, December 29, 2011 file photo, workers from one of the US non-governmental organizations, the National Democratic Institute, wait as Egyptian officials raid their office in Cairo.
Chris Simkins

Several U.S. aid organizations are facing criminal charges in Egypt for allegedly inciting pro-democracy protests against the country's military rulers.  Egyptian prosecutors say they will try dozens of non-governmental organization workers, including 19 Americans in connection with the criminal investigation.

Tensions between the United States and Egypt are growing over accusations U.S. based pro-democracy groups are using foreign funds to encourage protests against Egypt's military leaders.  The controversy escalated after an Egyptian Cabinet minister accused Washington of intentionally seeking to create chaos to prevent the country from prospering.

The U.S.-based non-profit organizations deny the allegations.  They maintain they have complied with Egyptian laws and avoid favoring any particular political party.  

In December, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of 17 nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding, seizing documents and computers.  The action has outraged the Obama administration, which has threatened to cut off more than $1 billion in aid to Egypt if the issue is not resolved.

Egyptian authorities should not restrict the work of non-governmental organizations, says the U.S. State Department's top human rights official, Michael Posner.

"I very much view the situation of the four American organizations as part of the broader discussion about the role of NGO's [non-governmental organizations] in this society," he said. "There are international NGO's like those four and there are local Egyptian organizations.  All the groups need to have the ability to operate openly, freely without constrain on the basis of the content of their work."

Four of the nonprofit organizations are based in Washington and receive some U.S. government funding.  

The pro-democracy groups such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute are working in Egypt and in dozens of other countries.  The groups focus mostly on educating political parties on developing platforms, teaching civic groups on how to promote their causes and training election monitors.

Michele Dunne, an expert on Egypt at the research institution Atlantic Council in Washington, says there needs to be a new understanding between the United States and Egypt about the issue.

"There needs to be a recognition that a robust and free civil society is just as important to the democratization process as are free elections," said Dunne. "These kinds of NGO's are trying to do the work in Egypt that they do all over the world.  There is nothing unusual or suspicious about the work that either the American of Egyptian NGO's are doing."

During the past 30 years, the United States has funded pro-democracy groups that work in countries like Russia, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.  But analysts say non-governmental workers on some occasions have been harassed or met with suspicion of having an agenda in other countries affairs.  

A fellow at Washington's Institute for Near East Policy, Eric Trager, says Egyptian state media need to stop putting out false statements about the work of pro-democracy groups in the country.

"The state run [Egyptian] press has been very aggressive in going after these NGO's and portraying them as American pawns," said Trager.

As the standoff between Cario and Washington continues, human-rights advocates say they hope the pending criminal charges against pro-democracy groups in Egypt will be dropped.  They maintain the aid organizations were simply training people to take part in the election the country's military rulers wanted to hold.  

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