The recent announcement by the Egyptian government that they will try 19 American citizens working for pro-democracy organizations in Cairo, signifies a dangerous new low point in Egyptian-U.S relations. It appears that Egypt's struggle to find the path toward democracy has taken another frightening turn.
Since the raids on these groups offices five weeks ago, employees of organizations like the International Republican Institute, and National Democratic Institute, have endured numerous interrogations by members of the Egyptian Ministry of Justice -- despite no real evidence of wrongdoing. Yet, even with limited resources -- after the Egyptian government confiscated their computers and money -- NDI managed to complete the third and final phase of its international observation mission to ensure a free and fair vote in the Egyptian parliamentary elections last month.
But IRI and other pro-democracy organizations remain shuttered.
The attacks on these organizations are truly unfortunate for the Egyptian people. These NGOs have strong reputations for respecting the sovereignty and government of the countries they operate in -- their main objectives to foster democracy, promote human rights and individual liberties. As IRI said in a statement released yesterday, this "is a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt's growing civil society groups, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs."
As an aspiring journalist in Tunisia -- the cradle of the Arab Spring -- I was given the opportunity this past fall to participate in a month-long internship with IRI in Washington, D.C. The internship was part of a fellowship that gave emerging leaders from Tunisia and Egypt the opportunity to learn first-hand about the practical methods and tools for good democratic governance, and also work with various U.S.-based news organizations. I attended the weekly staff meetings at IRI where senior members of the organization spoke in detail about their methods to help spread democratic ideals, and build civil society institutions around the world. Beyond learning about the intricacies of democracy, my experience taught me that IRI is a U.S.-funded NGO, but it is truly a multinational organization, working with people from many nations who share one utopian goal: supporting democracy across the world. One way to understand the Egyptian raids on IRI and NDI, according to Mahmoud Sawy, founder and the executive director of the Horya (Freedom) Center for Human Rights in Egypt, is that the current government is trying to hamper any attempt to support the democratic process. Sawy claims that the raids excluded NGOs supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and only targeted groups like his, which are working for democratic change. Sawy's organization previously worked with both NDI and IRI. "They support us mainly through technical assistance," Sawy says. "They do not provide any direct financial support, but instead they organize trainings which they paid for with their own money. I believe Egyptian civil society will face hard times without them."
Mouheb Garoui, founder and president of I-Watch, a Tunis-based advocate for political transparency, and accountability, and also a partner of IRI and NDI, said that he was not surprised, but was saddened by the raids on NGOs in Egypt. "Egypt is still fighting to find its way toward democracy, and NGOs such as NDI and IRI are not welcome there because they represent a threat for anti-revolution decision makers," says Garoui. Garoui also highlighted the crucial role IRI and NDI played in the Tunisian democratic transition. "They were the first [groups] to believe in us and support us. If it wasn't for their help, we couldn't have managed to observe the elections and raise awareness among Tunisians."
The first free and fair democratic elections in Tunisia this past October were seen as a big step in the right direction in the eyes of the international community, and an example for the other aspiring democracies of the Arab Spring. IRI and NDI contributed to the success of the historic Tunisian elections, supporting political parties in developing their profiles, assisting activists and civil society organizations that expressed interest in observing the elections, and conducting public opinion polls tracking people's evolving political attitudes. While the pace of the democratic transition in Tunisia and Egypt will differ for a variety of reasons (Tunisia's much smaller population and larger middle class give it significant advantages) the fundamental need for institutions like IRI and NDI to help educate the masses of Arab youth in the ways of democracy is indispensable.
My time with IRI in the U.S. this past fall helped me gain a much better understanding of the democratic system, and how a free press operates. I feel fortunate every day to be applying these new skills as a journalist in my country, interviewing and challenging government representatives here on a wide range of issues facing Tunisia in its own struggle for democracy. Just one year ago before the revolution, I could never have dreamed this would be possible. I can only hope my Egyptian friends will have the same opportunities as me.