Terms of Engagement

The Egypt Backlash

Is it a fantasy to believe that the United States can still promote democracy in non-democratic states?

Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Egypt blinked. On Thursday, Egypt’s interim military government, known as the SCAF, decided to end the crisis it had provoked, or perhaps stumbled into, by raiding the offices of four American organizations which promote democracy abroad, and arresting sixteen U.S. citizens. Rather than risk the loss of $1.3 billion a year in military funding, as the U.S. Congress had threatened, Egypt allowed the Americans to leave. But the breach in U.S.-Egyptian relations will not be healed so easily, nor will the fears for Egypt’s democratic future be put to rest. And the whole affair has raised a collateral worry: Is it a fantasy to believe that outsiders can promote democracy in non-democratic states?

Foreign groups have made a difference in the past. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the organizations targeted in Egypt, first cut its teeth in Chile helping local NGOs defeat the dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1986 referendum. Both quasi-governmental bodies like NDI, which receives federal funding, and private groups like George Soros’s Open Society Institute, played an important role helping to organize democracy activists in the 2000 election that unseated Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and in the "color revolutions" in Ukraine in 2003 and Georgia in 2004.

But autocrats don’t hold onto power by being stupid. Vladimir Putin in Russia and his brethren in Central Asia "were shaken by the color revolutions" as Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar at Stanford University, puts it. And they fought back. In 2006, the National Endowment of Democracy — the parent body to NDI and to the International Republican Institute (IRI), also targeted in Egypt — produced a report titled "The Backlash Against Democracy Assistance," which documented the growing efforts by autocratic states to block democracy assistance, including by expelling foreign organizations and harassing their staff. The color revolutions, Diamond points out, posed less of a threat to totalitarian regimes like those in Beijing or Havana  than they did to the more numerous states, like Russia or Venezuela, which practiced "authoritarian pluralism," in which elections offered the illusion of democratic choice without threatening the regime’s control. International groups could help local activists seize these empty rituals to threaten or unseat authoritarian rulers. And this was where the backlash was concentrated.

Groups like NDI and IRI strenuously defend their "nonpartisan" status, but they are not, of course, impartial when it comes to democracy vs. non-democracy. It’s hard to fathom why a sensible autocrat would tolerate them. Autocrats used to do so because they didn’t know any better. Eduard Shevardnadze, the strongman of Georgia a decade ago, never knew what hit him, says Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar who worked with NDI in Georgia at the time. "Now these people get it." Mitchell argues that leaders often feel that accepting these groups is the price they have to pay to earn U.S. foreign aid, and to ensure a warm White House reception. But he sees the standoff in Egypt as evidence that rulers who seek to cling to power are concluding that the game may not be worth the candle, and thus that what was possible ten or 15 years ago is not possible today.

Autocrats like Putin wildly overestimate the capacity of democracy groups to make a difference, perhaps because they refuse to acknowledge that the real threat to their rule comes not from outsiders, but from the frustrated aspirations of their own citizens. They have adapted (and over-adapted) to the training, organizing, and polling work which groups like NDI and IRI do in the way that football defenses respond to a new wrinkle in an opponent’s passing game. Some do thus more subtly than others. The SCAF, through incompetence or inattention, managed to arouse the entire U.S. Congress and jeopardize the bilateral relation with the United States. By contrast, in 2009, Ethiopia, another autocratic U.S. ally, passed a law permitting domestic organizations to receive foreign funding, so long as 90 percent of their budget comes from domestic donors — few of whom would be foolish enough to vex the regime with such gifts. Likewise, in an earlier incarnation of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak used to allow the groups to operate while making it almost impossible for them to work with local activists.

There are, it’s true, all sorts of distinctive and peculiar aspects to the current melodrama in Cairo, which was provoked by a minister left over from the Mubarak government who appeared to be furious that some American aid was going directly to Egyptian NGOs rather than passing through her ministry. The SCAF did not premeditate the confrontation with the United States. But Egypt’s military and civilian leaders have resorted to the classic backlash playbook by appealing to nationalist outrage over alleged violations of sovereignty by the foreign groups, who are said to have carried out a hidden "U.S.-Israeli agenda." And the appeal has worked, at least well enough to distract attention from the real goal, which is to discredit both the foreign groups and the local actors whom they fund. Leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the decision to detain the American officials; they later defended the right of local NGOs to organize, but did not call for the release of the foreigners. The SCAF’s reversal under U.S. pressure unleashed a fresh wave of nationalist anger, which even included moderate figures like presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei, who used Twitter to criticize "intervention in judiciary work."

Is the crisis in Egypt an aberration, or a harbinger? Daniel Brumberg, a scholar of Arab politics, points out that NDI is currently working in Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Jordan, and elsewhere in the region. "In terms of the Arab world," he says, "Egypt is an outlier. Overall, the U.S. organizations promoting democracy have had a pretty positive experience." That’s an important point. Groups like NDI and IRI work in a vast range of countries; in the democratic ones, their work is generally non-controversial, and even in some non-democratic ones they are permitted to operate openly. But Lincoln Mitchell argues that democracy promotion in autocratic states tends to be inoffensive, and thus ineffective, as he noticed in a program in Azerbaijan which he evaluated for the U.S. government. "If you’re doing work in Baku and the Aliyevs [the ruling family] aren’t really upset, you’re not doing a good job."

Mitchell thinks that the problem is inherently insoluble, and thus that the democracy promotion moment has come and gone. Another way of looking at it, though, is that the United States and other outside actors will have to decide how much they care about helping democratic forces in non-democratic states, and thus how much pressure they will impose on regimes to let those forces work. The Obama administration has gone to the mat in Egypt, where the regime was foolish enough to threaten American citizens, but not in Ethiopia. But the SCAF is still free to repress domestic groups — a far greater threat to their continuing rule — even though they’ve released the Americans. Larry Diamond argues that the United States must not let a disingenuous argument over sovereignty "trump a more basic international principle that people have a right to peacefully organize a civil society." He would like to see the Obama administration "push back very, very hard" against regimes that try to throttle democracy assistance, and do so in collaboration with other Western states and with the United Nations. International actors must be prepared at times to withhold goodies that matter to such rulers, whether in the form of aid or a diplomatic embrace.

There’s no satisfying answer to this problem. Like it or not, the United States needs autocratic or semi-democratic  allies like Egypt and Ethiopia, not to mention Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan. It will not, and should not, put the right of NDI and IRI to operate freely at the top of the agenda with those states. With the worst of them, it’s probably a waste of breath. And it’s important to remain modest about what outsiders can accomplish even in ambiguous settings like today’s Egypt and Azerbaijan. But the Arab Spring has decisively proved that people who have spent their whole lives under repressive rule are prepared to take risks, sometimes very grave ones, in order to gain a measure of dignity. And the United States has to be on the right side of that struggle. The Obama administration should take the crisis in Egypt as a wake-up call on the democracy backlash.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola