Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A Movement within a movement: America’s role in the Arab Spring Revolutions

By Timothy Haggerty

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The fledgling democracies of the Arab Spring movement fought through autocratic governments and violent oppression to gain freer political processes, yet they are still not free from meddling organizations, funded by United States taxpayers, that “promote democracy” in foreign countries; a process both contradictory to democratic values and grounded more in American interests than genuine concern.

For the past three decades, the U.S. has been openly promoting democracy in countries around the world. The group that funds these projects, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), was set up in 1983 to acquire grants for promoting democracy in developing countries.

The endowment, since 2008, has received about $100 million annually from Congress. NED now supports over 1,000 projects of nongovernmental groups abroad in over 90 countries. NED is sponsored by the State Department and sends money through two main subgroups, the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, which were established around the same time as NED and give the organization a bipartisan appearance.

The influence of NED gained widespread attention last April, when it appeared in a New York Times article detailing the involvement of this organization in the Arab Spring movement. The article stated that key leaders in the Arab Spring —including leaders from the April Sixth movement in Egypt, a youth movement that began as a labor strike in Egypt’s textile industry in 2008 — had been trained by U.S. groups. The groups funding such training were, according to the article, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. As mentioned above, two of these groups receive their funding directly from NED.

These groups were instrumental in teaching youth and adults, from Egypt to Yemen, how to organize and build coalitions. In addition to training sessions offered by these groups, there was a 2008 technology meeting in New York, attended by some of the Egyptian youth leaders in the Arab Spring, where people learned how to use social media and mobile technology to promote democracy.  This event was sponsored by the State Department (which funds NED and USAID) and also by Facebook and Google.

Many of NED’s critics point out the fact that the activities it carries out are similar to what the CIA was doing secretly in the 1960s and 70s as it intervened in regime changes in foreign countries around the world. Allen Weinstein, who helped establish NED and is now a Senior Strategist at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, said in a 1991 Washington Post interview that “a lot of what we (organizations sponsored by NED) do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

Many of NED’s involvements are contradictory and seem to do more to undermine democracy than to promote it. A recent example of this is its support of the Egyptian revolution movements at a time when the U.S. government was officially supporting the Egyptian State Security Investigations Service, which was responsible for capturing and arresting protesters.  The government even offers training sessions to the SSIS at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., according to a 2007 diplomatic cable released on WikiLeaks.

In the past, NED has undermined democracy by interfering with the electoral process in other countries. It does this by providing funding to opposition groups in order to influence elections, as it did in Nicaragua in the late 80s, when it supported groups that opposed Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega.

One of the major issues of the organization’s private status is that it can follow its own independent foreign policy. As such, American taxpayer money goes towards projects that are not representative of official American foreign policy. The group’s independent status means that it does not answer to a government body in the same way that government agencies do. NED directly violated U.S. foreign policy in 1984, when it funded nonprofit groups that supported a military-backed candidate in Panama at a time when the U.S. did not support military rule there.

NED also stretches thin the rules of its nongovernmental status. There exists a law barring government officials from working for such organizations under the 501c3 tax code. The boards of directors for NDI and IRI are composed of a slew of former representatives, including former secretary of states, members of congress, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrative officials, and national security advisors. Madeleine Albright, former speaker of the house, chairs NDI and current Arizona Senator John McCain chairs IRI.

Opponents of NED have pointed out since its inception that it is redundant to have multiple organizations that fund foreign assistance programs. In 1983, there already existed the Agency for International Development (now USAID) and the no longer extant United States Information Agency (USIA), both with extensive foreign assistance programs.  Yet, according to NED’s website, their activities are specialized and different from what USAID does.

NED and USAID have been known to have functions that overlap in the past.  In 1991, after an audit conducted by officials of USIA, it was found that NED sponsored some of the same groups being supported by other government agencies, specifically AID and USIA.

USAID also lists many initiatives on their website that have a striking resemblance to efforts being carried out by NED, under their office of democracy and governance activities. Some of these include “building rule of law [and] strengthening democracy,” training foreign law enforcement, encouraging and helping to create more transparent and accountable government institutions, and pressing for more genuine and competitive political processes.  According to their list of obligations for 2011, Good Governance received $954 million in funding.  Compare this to the just under $118 million appropriated to NED in 2011. Yet despite their comparatively small budget, the groups sponsored by NED still receive considerable suspicion, especially from leaders in Egypt, where 43 members of nonprofit groups were prosecuted this February.

One of the toughest critics of these organizations, economic researcher and freelance journalist William Engdahl, said through email correspondence that the biggest issue with U.S. non-governmental organizations intervening in the internal affairs of other countries is that “their work has little to do with the interests of those countries and all to do with the agenda of Washington agencies.” Pointing out that their methods are a clear departure from our country’s own democratic values, he said, “We need an NGO to create democracy in America today.”

Timothy Haggerty is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]

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