What’s Egypt’s Beef With Freedom and U.S. NGOs?

Some non-government organizations have more government than others.

Egypt’s objection to U.S. pro-democracy NGOs is a real puzzler, worthy of the Sphinx. (Photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

The generals of Egypt’s Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) are, for the most part, the same gang of strongmen that packed the punch into deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of iron-fisted power. Now the SCAF is its own master, running the day-to-day affairs of post-Arab Spring Egypt, and it’s less accommodating to American interests than Mubarak had been.

In late December 2011, SCAF soldiers raided the Egyptian offices of three U.S.-based pro-democracy non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Computers, data, cash and other equipment were seized from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House. Egyptian authorities questioned NGO staff members for hours on end, and a travel ban was imposed, forbidding at least seven of the Americans from fleeing the land of the Pharaohs. Self-proclaimed democracy activist Sam LaHood, country director of the IRI and son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has holed up in the United States Embassy for safekeeping.

Would American politicians risk alienating defense industry lobbyists for the sake of Doctors Without Borders? Would Egyptian military men put that cache of kill tools on the line to harass Operation Smile?

Senator Patrick Leahy, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Aid Subcommittee, has threatened to pull $1.8 billion in annual military aid from Egypt unless its army-backed government “reflects the assumption that they are committed to democracy.” In response, an Egyptian military delegation visiting the United States blew off meetings with U.S. lawmakers—including Senator John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee—and flew back to Cairo.

The fact that Egypt and the United States are so cavalier about tossing around $1.8 billion worth of U.S. weaponry as a bargaining chip reveals the importance of these three particular NGOs. Would American politicians risk alienating defense industry lobbyists for the sake of Doctors Without Borders? Would Egyptian military men put that cache of kill tools on the line to harass Operation Smile?

Something about these three NGOs has caused a sticking point in the usually fluid exchanges of weapons and influence between the world’s last remaining superpower and any of the globe’s newest military dictatorships democracies.

Here’s a hint: The National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House all sound like Political Action Committees.

What Are the NGO Mission Statements?

From the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Website: “The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.”

From the International Republican Institute (IRI) Website: “A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, IRI advances freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, democratic governance and the rule of law.”

From the Freedom House Website: “Freedom House supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights around the world. We stand in opposition to ideas and forces that challenge the right of all people to be free.”

Who Heads Each Non-Governmental Board of Directors?

Chair of the NDI’s Board of Directors is Madeleine K. Albright. Internationally, Albright is most poignantly recalled as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Rwandan genocide. She later served as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton and is currently Chair of Albright Capital Management LLC, an investment advisory firm focused on emerging markets.

Chairman of the IRI’s Board of Directors is U.S. Senator John McCain. Ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain’s most lasting contribution to free global discourse may turn out to be placing former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin on the world stage.

Chairman of Freedom House’s Board of Trustees is William H. Taft IV. Taft is the great-grandson of President William Howard Taft. He served as Deputy Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan. As acting Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, Taft became the third member of his family head a military department.

Senior Staff Work Histories

The Nonpartisan NDI’s vice president, Shari K. Bryan, has conducted missions to more than 30 countries during her tenure at NDI, and played a key role promoting democratic assistance programs in Africa; conceptualizing and organizing projects on governance and HIV/AIDS; and increasing the role of legislatures in overseeing the extractive industries.

The Nonpartisan IRI’s president, Lorne W. Craner, was Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under President Bush the Second. Craner previously served at the behest of General Brent Scowcroft and James Baker under President Bush the First. 

The Nonpartisan Freedom House’s president, David J. Kramer, served the U.S. government as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the administration of George W. Bush, a presidency not widely celebrated among human rights and labor activists.

The IRI is believed to have trained leaders of the 2004 Haitian coup and funding a destabilization program in the months leading up to the removal of democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Noteworthy Directors

The NDI: Senator Thomas A. Daschle, vice chair board of directors, coauthored a book championing universal health care. After leaving the Senate, Daschle was paid $2 million-a-year by K Street lobbying firm Alston & Bird. Daschle’s work with Alston & Bird was reportedly very beneficial to UnitedHealth Group, one of the country’s largest health insurers.

The IRI: Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft sits with Senator Lindsay Graham and Representative David Dreier, both of whom swoon at the sight of any piece of gay-rights legislation, on the IRI board. Scowcroft was National Security Advisor under presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. His long association with secret war architect Henry Kissinger (Scowcroft is Vice Chairman of Kissinger Associates) extends back to Kissinger’s stint as National Security Advisor under Richard Nixon. The Scowcroft Group, which the General heads, is an international business-consulting firm.

Freedom House: Ruth Wedgwood, vice chair of Freedom House’s board of trustees, is a former member of ex-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board and has repeatedly defended the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq. She also attends the Davos World Economic Forum’s Council on the International Global Agenda, which has been criticized by American gadfly Noam Chomsky as “a gathering of … extremely narrow highly privileged elites who … are called ‘pro-globalization’ by the propaganda system.”

Signal Accomplishments

NDI: Supplying election observers, funding voter training, working to uphold the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations initiative.

IRI: The IRI is believed to have trained leaders of the 2004 Haitian coup and funding a destabilization program in the months leading up to the removal of democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Former U.S. Ambassador Brian Dean Curran accused the IRI of undermining peaceful negotiations with Aristide.

Freedom House: The Financial Times reported that the U.S. government paid Freedom House to conduct “clandestine activities” inside Iran. In 2006, Freedom House asked the U.S. Senate for extra money to support internal efforts to delegitimize and overthrow non-democratic governments.

Third Party Reviews

NDI: In the opinion of Representative Ron Paul, foreign organizations equivalent to the NDI “would be rightly illegal in the United States.”

IRI: According to Source Watch, published by the Center for Media and Democracy, the IRI “seeks to influence political outcomes and civic society in lesser developed countries around the world. … The IRI also engages in activities previously performed by the CIA.”

Freedom House: The Institute for Policy Studies, which “tracks militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy” characterizes Freedom House as “a neoconservative and rightist pro-Israel group.”

Receives Funding From the U.S. Department of State?

The National Democratic Institute: Yes.

The International Republican Institute: Yes.

Freedom House: Yes.

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