Now that seven American pro-democracy workers have been allowed to post bail and return to the United States, perhaps we can examine what the U.S. was up to in Egypt using reason instead of patriotic emotion. The Egyptian furor over such seemingly idealistic work may strike us as wild and idiotic, but in fact, the Egyptians have a right to be suspicious. America's attempt to promote democracy around the world through private organizations has unsavory beginnings and a sometimes troubling history.
The program stems from a discredited CIA operation. In the 1950s and '60s, during the Cold War, the CIA set up a group of phony foundations to funnel CIA money to private groups that were either anti-communist or, at least, non-communist. Among the recipients were the AFL-CIO, the National Student Assn. and the magazines Encounter in London and Transition in Africa. Some did not even realize they were operating with CIA subsidies. When the secret operation was exposed in Ramparts magazine and other U.S. publications, there was great embarrassment, and President Lyndon Johnson put a stop to such CIA funding.
But many in Congress felt that the program's problem lay only in its ties to the CIA. Cut those ties and make everything aboveboard, they argued, and the attempt to win hearts and minds to the American way would be useful and benign. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy to take the place of the defunct CIA program.
Under the law, the endowment divided its money among four new institutes created to sponsor programs encouraging democracy throughout the world. The four institutes were run by the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supposedly ensuring the participation of the major American ideologies and interests.
It was obvious that spreading democracy in foreign lands was a delicate matter that needed to be handled with great care and tact, but the endowment fumbled this right away. It allocated $1.5 million to the AFL-CIO's institute for a program in France. Because France was both democratic and a U.S. ally, the endowment did not announce that the funds were going there.
The AFL-CIO official handling the grant in Paris was 74-year-old Irving Brown, credited with using CIA money after World War II to help prevent the communists from taking over the major French labor unions. Brown gave most of the endowment grant to Force Ouvriere, an anti-communist labor federation. He also gave $575,000 to a right-wing student group that plastered Paris with posters attacking Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist president of France.
In Brown's mind, France was in danger because the Communist Party, which had a following of less than 10% of the electorate, supported Mitterrand.
"We're defending democracy in France," he told the Los Angeles Times. When a Paris newspaper exposed Brown's role in the campaign, an embarrassedU.S. Embassy denied it was a government program. But the funds, of course, did come from the U.S. government.
Since then, there have been accusations of interference in elections or plebiscites by the National Endowment for Democracy in Panama, Nicaragua, Chile, Costa Rica and Czechoslovakia. Despite this, the endowment has been able to withstand all embarrassments and accusations and still enjoy vast bipartisan support. Congress appropriated $118 million for the endowment's 2012 budget.
In Egypt, the four U.S. organizations under attack for fomenting unrest with illegal foreign funding were all connected to the endowment. Two — the GOP's International Republican Institute and the Democratic Party's National Democratic Institute — are among the groups that make up the endowment's core constituents. The two other indicted groups, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists, receive funds from the endowment.
The history of the National Endowment for Democracy would not be unknown to Fayza Aboul Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation who has been leading the attack against the American organizations. Aboul Naga, a career diplomat, spent five years in New York in the 1990s as an advisor to a fellow Egyptian, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It was not a good time and place for her to watch American democracy in action.
The Clinton administration, worried about public opinion, used Boutros-Ghali as a scapegoat whenever American policy went awry at the U.N. When 18 U.S. troops were killed in Somalia in 1993, for example, the administration blamed the secretary-general even though the soldiers had been under American, not U.N., command. During the presidential election campaign of 1996, the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, even mocked the secretary-general's name and belittled the U.N., regaling crowds by calling him, "Booootros Booootros-Ghali."
After Clinton's reelection, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and future secretary of State, vetoed Boutros-Ghali's bid for a second term;the rest of the Security Council voted for him. The National Democratic Institute probably gains no favor with Aboul Naga now by featuring Albright as board chairman.
We don't know exactly what American activities in Egypt upset Aboul Naga and other Egyptians. The charges have not been dropped. The groups say they were registered legally and were engaged in legitimate civil society work. But a thorough evaluation is needed.
More important, the motives underlying the U.S. funding should be evaluated as well. There is an American smugness that assumes everyone else must benefit from emulating our political system. In fact, advising our friends about their politics demands great sensitivity. Not everyone appreciates our interference. These private though U.S.-government-funded institutes should not be in a country where, as seems to be the case in Egypt, they are not wanted.
Stanley Meisler, a former foreign and diplomatic correspondent for The Times, is the author most recently of "United Nations: A History."