Democracy Lab

Rude Awakening

Promoting democracy in places like Egypt or Iraq is about changing the status quo. So why are we so surprised when it turns out that not everyone is in favor?

Imagine this: You're a member of the post-revolutionary Egyptian cabinet, one of the very last holdovers from the Mubarak era. You also happen to be a civilian, so you can't depend on your buddies in the officers' club to protect you. And on top of everything else you're a woman, in a society that doesn't exactly have a rich history of high-ranking female politicians. What do you do to shore up your career?

Why, you go after the Americans, of course.

Faiza Abul-Naga, Egypt's somewhat ironically titled Minister of International Cooperation, has vastly boosted her notoriety by placing herself at the center of a scandal involving U.S. democracy assistance. On December 29, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of 17 local and foreign non-government organizations around the country, accusing them of the illegal use of funds and various other crimes. (The photo above shows Egyptian security forces  guarding the Cairo office of the U.S. National Democratic Instititue, one of the U.S. groups raided.) Several observers, including U.S. Senator John McCain, have pointed the finger at Abul-Naga, who is said to have orchestrated the crackdown on NGOs as a way of diverting attention from the poor performance of the military-led government. The minister is not making any effort dispel that impression: "Every country has pressure cards in the political field," she apparently told an Egyptian newspaper. "Egypt is no exception."

The U.S. reaction veered between indignation and disbelief. "We are very concerned because this is not appropriate in the current environment," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The raids put Egypt's ruling military junta and the U.S. "on an unprecedented collision course," puffed Newsweek. Analysts dutifully pointed out that the raids could jeopardize the $1.3 billion in direct aid the U.S. pays to the Egyptian military each year. Now the Egyptians say they're preparing to put the 43 civil society workers they've arrested (including 16 Americans) on trial for their presumed offenses.

Amid all the fuss linger several unanswered questions: Why would the generals do such a stupid thing? Are they thinking straight? Are they really in control? After all, the organizations under attack are simply trying to promote democracy and help build institutions in the wake of Egypt's chaotic revolution. Surely even the generals ought to be able to understand that such efforts are in the interest of all Egyptians.

In fact, though, the commentators should have been asking a different question about Abul-Naga -- namely, what took her so long. After all, the Americans have been deeply unpopular in Egypt for years. Washington supported Mubarak for decades. Washington is a close friend of Israel. Washington has been invading and occupying Muslim countries. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 70 percent of Egyptians were opposed to further U.S. funding to their country, which they view (without knowing much about the details) as interference in their internal affairs. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that some enterprising Egyptian politician decided to capitalize on such sentiments.

To understand Egypt's NGO scandal, it might help to look at another Arab country where the U.S. has spent billions trying to promote democratic institutions: Iraq. Earlier this month The New York Times reported that Washington is planning to slash the civilian presence at its massive embassy in Baghdad. Though the State Department pushed back against the paper's claim that the plans could mean a 50 percent reduction in the staff there, it still looks likely that the cuts will be substantial.

What's obvious, though, is that the Americans are not going to be able to maintain the ambitious presence that they had hoped would buttress their influence in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. As recently as a year ago, we were still being told that the embassy's civilian staff would grow even as the troops departed. But now that the "war on terror" seems to be winding down, so, too, is enthusiasm for the much-touted civilian engagement that was supposed to reinforce and extend America's achievements on the battlefield. Remember all that impressive talk from Hillary Clinton about ramping up "civilian power"?

That's history now. For one thing, America has already spent reams of money to fund grand democracy-building exercises like the ones followed its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those efforts were never particularly popular with ordinary Americans even before the financial crisis devastated the U.S. economy. Remember how George W. Bush campaigned against "nation building" as a presidential candidate back in 2000? President Obama returned to the theme last year, memorably declaring in one of his speeches last year that "it is time to focus on nation-building here at home."

Promoting sound institutions and good governance in other countries was never going to be a push-over. It requires enormous amounts of time and labor. It's expensive. And it's hard to track results. Here's what one Iraqi who works for a U.S.-funded NGO wrote me in a recent email:

For more than a year now there have been signs that the U.S. is losing interest in the civilian aspects of the transition in Iraq -- transparency, accountability, rule of law, participation, rights, etc. It's sad to watch. There is a U.S. psychological retreat that began when the last Provincial Reconstruction Teams were closed down, in September 2010 I believe, accompanied by American disappointment in the results of U.S. involvement in Iraq since 2003... The political problems in Iraq were so intractable in 2010 and 2011 and stability so precarious -- still is -- that the U.S. has little leisure to worry about democracy, rule of law, etc...

The other point of this story it's that it's not at all clear that the Iraqi government wants those civilians to be in Baghdad in the first place. The Times story pointed out that one of the major problems that could be prompting the drawdown is the Iraqi government's reluctance to issue visas and permits to the people who are supposed to work at the embassy. Many of those people, it turns out, are private security contractors -- widely hated by the Iraqis since the notorious 2007 incident involving guards from the now-defunct security company Blackwater, who were accused of shooting 17 Iraqi civilians.

The Iraqi resentment of such firms, which during the U.S. occupation all too often acted like a law unto themselves, is entirely understandable. The problem is that the civilians who have far more benign agendas -- like, say, the United States Institutes of Peace staffers who have been training local Iraqis in the urgently needed skill of conflict resolution -- can't do their work without guards to protect them.

But it doesn't stop there. The Iraqi government also has its equivalents of Faiza Abul-Naga. For them, the presence of all those police instructors and anti-corruption consultants is an affront, an irritant, and perhaps even a threat. Of late, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has shown every indication that he aims to concentrate power in himself, his political party, and his Shiite sectarian brethren. Does he really care whether those U.S.-funded democracy promoters get their visas? Probably the opposite.

We Americans tend to see promoting democracy in other societies as a gentle, win-win, do-gooding exercise. What we tend to forget, though, is that introducing democratic institutions into previously authoritarian societies means changing the structure of power. And we should hardly expect those who are losing power to step aside quietly. Those catchwords so favored by the humanitarians may sound harmless, but in certain quarters they have explosive force. "Transparency" is a curse to the intriguer in the shadows. "Accountability" is a nightmare for the unelected autocrat. And "good governance" fills the corrupt official with dread.

Do I believe that democracy promoters (American and otherwise) should keep doing what they're doing? Absolutely. But those of us who hail them for their efforts should never forget that what they're doing is not charity work. It's politics. And politics is no business for the faint of heart.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Strange Revolution in Bahrain, One Year On

The revolt in little Bahrain is easy to ignore. But it’s actually part of a big global story.

In my career as a journalist I've interviewed lots of people who have been persecuted for political reasons. Usually they're eager to tell you about the causes for which they've suffered.

I've never met another one quite like Ghazi Farhan. Not that long ago he was just another wealthy businessman, part-owner of several posh restaurants and cafes in the wealthy Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.

But that was before the Arab Spring arrived. On April 12 last year, Farhan had just parked his car in a garage when he was waylaid by a group of men. Knocked to the ground by a flurry of punches and kicks, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and pushed into a car. 10 hours later, when the blindfold was finally removed, he realized that he was in a police station.

It was a bewildering experience. When the uprising began one year ago, many Bahrainis gravitated to the mushrooming demonstrations against the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy. But not Farhan. "Politics is not my fight," he says. "I just want to have a happy life." If anything, he was pro-government.

He told his interrogators as much. He admitted that he had occasionally come along to watch the demonstrators converging on the famed Pearl Roundabout, the traffic circle that served as the lodestar of the marches. He didn't participate. But he also told his interrogators that he'd tell them that he had if it would help. Whatever they wanted to hear, anything, as long as it would stop the torture. But they didn't stop.

They beat him with lengths of rubber hose. They deprived him of sleep and forced him to stand long hours in stress positions. They threatened him with rape. They threatened to rape his wife or his mother. At times, still blindfolded, he was tortured in the company of other prisoners. Listening to them scream and cry, he says, was just about the worst.

Several other themes figured prominently in his interrogation sessions. One was religion. Farhan, like the majority of Bahrain's 600,000 citizens, belongs to the Shia branch of Islam. The Bahraini royal family, which has ruled this tiny country since the late 18th century, is Sunni.

You aren't a real Muslim, his interrogators told him. You're a traitor; you're a friend of Iran. The allegation confounded him. "What do I have to do with Iran?" he says. "We have nothing in common with them. We are a liberal country. You want to pray, you pray. You want to party, you party."

Money was another big issue for his tormentors. Farhan was proud of his business success. Gucci is one of his favorite brands, and the car he drove was a Cadillac. He worked hard to get where he was. In Bahrain, he explains, Shiites are largely excluded from government jobs, so they have to study well and work hard to earn a good living in the private sector. He thought that he had made it.

One of the first questions his attackers asked him, that day in the car park, was about his salary. The low-level police thugs handling his case earned a pittance by comparison, and they hated him for it.

Many of them were Yemenis, Syrians, even Pakistanis -- but all were Sunnis, recruited by the royal family from the poorest parts of the Muslim world to beef up Bahrain's repressive apparatus. In return, some even receive the bounty of citizenship -- a reward that most expatriates can get only after living in the kingdom for a minimum of 15 years. If anything can be said to worsen the country's sectarian divides, surely this has to be one of them.

No one knows the precise number of people employed by the kingdom's security forces. By some estimates the ratio could be as high as one security operative to every eight citizens.

The real reason for Farhan's arrest soon became apparent: It was his marriage. His wife, Ala'a Shehabi, a British-trained PhD in economics, is the daughter of one of the founders of the Wefaq Party, Bahrain's leading opposition group. She, too, had spent most of her life outside of politics, studying in the United Kingdom. Two years ago she returned to Bahrain, hoping to contribute at least a bit to the betterment of her country.

But she soon ran head-on into the reality of disenfranchisement. Even though Bahrain's standard of living was high, the experience of being patronized by the all-powerful state soon rankled. "At the end of the day you have no avenue for expression," she says. "People here are highly educated, but you have to force the government to acknowledge you and to recognize your existence. I need to have control over my destiny." She joined the protests, but her husband remained aloof. She smiles sadly. "I'm the activist, not him."

Attacking her directly, however, would have posed a tricky political challenge for the government. Shehabi, a dual passport holder, is British as well as Bahraini. So they went after her husband instead.

At least she had the resources to mount an effective campaign for his freedom. After nine and a half months Farhan was finally released. He had missed a lot of time with his son Nasser, born in August 2010. His business partners, pressured by the government, bought him out. So now he has to start over. But the nightmares won't stop.

The government has vowed to prevent things like this from happening again. An independent investigation into last year's turmoil documented 35 deaths in the crackdown on the demonstrators.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has said that he'll reform the political system to give people more of a voice. So far not much has happened. In an interview published a few days ago, King Hamad denied the existence of political prisoners and suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should follow the advice of "the Syrian people" -- remarks, according to one journalist I spoke with in the Bahraini capital of Manama, that merely served to enflame the populace.

On February 13, Bahrainis took to the streets again. The Pearl Roundabout has been dismantled, but the demonstrators have tried to find new rallying points. The police rained down tear gas canisters on an estimated 10,000 protestors. An overwhelming security clampdown around the kingdom seems to have largely deterred additional demonstrations on the day of the one-year anniversary.

Bahrain hasn't solved any of its problems. With time, the opposition -- some of whom have moved from calling for constitutional monarchy to throwing Molotov cocktails at the police -- will grow radicalized. Iran has little to gain from getting directly involved, but then it doesn't really have to. The deepening global schism between Sunni and Shia can only be exacerbated by the images from Manama. (Right now, little noticed in the outside world, restive Shiites in the nearby Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are battling the police once again.)

Like her husband, Ala'a never really thought of herself primarily as a Shiite before. But now she has no choice: "We're worthless. We're treated like second-class citizens." Now the authorities put photos of individual protestors on TV and the internet, urging people to inform on each other. The government, says Farhan, "is promoting the gap between Shia and Sunni."

Bahrain is small, and that makes it easy to ignore. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that that makes it unimportant.

AFP/Getty Images