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.