Egypt’s plan to charge 19 Americans highlights tense relationship with activists

Julie Hughes, a veteran pro-democracy worker, was crushed when she missed out on Egypt’s revolt last year. In a Facebook posting at the time, she said, “It’s like having your next door neighbor throw an incredibly joyous party and you don’t get an invitation.”

So when she got an offer from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to return to the field as Egypt country director, Hughes, 44, didn’t think twice. “Egypt is going to be interesting,” her new boss told her.

Nine months later, Hughes is one of 43 pro-democracy workers, including 19 Americans, who face criminal charges from the authorities in Cairo for operating without proper registration and receiving foreign money. She is banned from leaving Egypt and subject to arrest. Along with Hughes, five of the other Americans are still in the country, according to a list released by Egyptian state media.

The lives of Hughes and other pro-democracy workers have been upended in a drama that not only threatens U.S.-Egyptian relations but highlights the uneasy relationship between American democracy activists and some foreign governments.

The Egyptian ruling generals who are cracking down on the NDI and similar groups are the latest in a line of foreign leaders from Moscow to Addis Ababa who fear that they are targets of a regime-change playbook scripted in Washington and carried out under the guise of building civil society.

Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Cairo, said nongovernmental organizations involved in political work have long been radioactive in the eyes of the Egyptian state. Analysts in Cairo say the current crackdown could bolster the military’s portrayal of foreigners and international organizations as illicit agents attempting to shape the future of post-revolutionary Egypt to further Western — and in particular U.S. — interests. After almost every outbreak of violence or sustained protest over the past year, the generals have warned of “foreign hands.”

Charles Dunne, the Middle East director for Freedom House, one of the pro-democracy groups being investigated, said he found out that he was on the list of those to be charged in an e-mail from his office manager in Cairo.

“I had no idea I was a fugitive from justice,” said Dunne, who is based in Washington.

He spent the day coordinating with the group’s Cairo lawyer — hired in recent months — and trying to make sense of the seemingly haphazard list.

“I’m as puzzled as everyone else,” Dunne said. “What it looks like is they took all the major international groups working in Egypt, fingered all the management-level employees and lumped in the people overseas who are running the programs.”

The charge that the United States trumpets democracy to destabilize certain regimes is a familiar one in some parts of the world. The allegations almost always focus on U.S.-funded groups that work with political parties or journalists to build professionalism and independence, creating twin threats to the existing order.

The fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 2000, followed by successful popular revolts in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in 2004, led to deep suspicion in parts of the former Soviet bloc, particularly Russia, that the United States was funding revolution through the NDI, the International Republican Institute and other groups.

“People who are isolated fall into apathy; they feel they cannot change anything. But we can say, ‘Let me tell you what happened in Serbia,’ ” said Julija Belej Bakovic, IRI regional director for Asia and a former student activist in Serbia. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

That was not a welcome message in Moscow. In 2006, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law placing tight controls on the activities of foreign and domestic pro-democracy groups because the Kremlin said they were interfering in the country’s domestic affairs and had been used as cover for foreign spies.

Registration became a bludgeon to harass and shutter pro-democracy groups in Russia. The law was replicated in various forms in neighboring countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And it spread to Africa and South America, where the NDI and the IRI have also run afoul of various governments hostile to their work.

Bakovic said the Egyptian and other governments that have moved against the NDI and the IRI are afraid of their own people, not the intervention of foreigners.

“They target American organizations to scare their own people into submission,” she said.

The Egyptian decision to bring pro-democracy workers to trial — which threatens to affect U.S. military aid and diplomatic ties — is unprecedented, said NDI President Kenneth Wollack.

“We don’t go in and try to unseat anyone or push opposition to the authorities,” Wollack said. “We teach how elections are run; we teach political parties, without picking sides, how to engage the public. In Egypt, we’ve worked with virtually every party in their new parliament. The programs we’ve run in Egypt since the revolution, ironically, have been to support the very political process the country has defined for itself.”

After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the work of pro-democracy groups exploded in Egypt. U.S. funding for the NDI, for example, grew from hundreds of thousands of dollars to $7 million a year. Its modest staff went from a small Cairo office with two international workers to three offices manned by 12 international workers and more than 50 Egyptians. 

When Hughes arrived in Cairo in May, new political parties were springing up by the day. Groups such as the NDI were flooded with requests for training and advice as they struggled to make sense of the country’s complicated new electoral system.

“The biggest challenge was just responding to the needs,” Hughes said. “It seemed like every time you picked up the paper, a new party was born. Things were changing incredibly fast.”

The NDI was willing to work with every party in Egypt, as none were banned under its rules: The group will not train parties that advocate violence or that don’t support multi-party systems.

During the country’s parliamentary elections last year, NDI officials were among the international observers given unfettered access to polling stations — a rare break with tradition in Egypt, which during Mubarak’s rule refused to let foreign observers monitor its elections.

But optimism that the gesture marked an opening for the NDI and similar groups was dashed on Dec. 29, when armed men showed up at their offices and raided equipment and files.

Still, Hughes said she remains hopeful for the future of the country that has billed her as a criminal. “I have been fascinated by Egypt since I was a 6-year-old leaning about pyramids and pharaohs,” she said.

William Wan contributed to this report. He and Finn reported from Washington.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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