The “NGOs” that spooked Egypt

History shows that the country is right to regard some U.S.-backed aid organizations warily

Topics: Egypt,

The "NGOs" that spooked EgyptEgyptian protesters, left, spray burning aerosol over Muslim Brotherhood guards outside the Egyptian parliament. (Credit: AP)

Cairo and Washington breathed a sigh of relief last month when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved military aid to Egypt. But their hopes for the future proved to be wishful thinking, as Egypt asked Interpol this week to issue red notices for the arrest of six Americans whom the Egyptians accuse of illegally stirring unrest. The Americans are all employees of three ostensibly private groups that Washington funds “to promote democracy” in Egypt and other countries. The State Department paid as much as $5 million in bail for the defendants, all of whom had to pledge to return for subsequent court proceedings. They did not do so, which legally makes them fugitives.

Washington is currently pressing Interpol to deny Egypt’s request, even as other countries in the region regard the American NGOs with suspicion. The United Arab Emirates has just banned one of the American groups, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and a similar group from Germany, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Observers are waiting to see if other countries will issue similar bans.

These attacks – and Washington’s effort to downplay any official role in the supposedly nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – call into question American efforts to promote change in other countries. They also fuel long-standing suspicions that stem from the earliest days of the Cold War. A little history explains much of the present crisis.

Back in the day, the CIA secretly funded, sometimes created, and often ran supposedly private, nongovernmental organizations to make propaganda and provide cover for covert operations all over the world. The compromised groups included the Congress for Cultural Freedom with over 60 publications and an international news service, the European Movement, and France’s anti-communist trade union federation, Force Ouvrière, which worked closely with the legendary labor activist and CIA operative Irving Brown.

Inherently unwieldy and dependent on the willingness of too many people to turn a blind eye, the elaborate apparatus began to come apart in the late 1960s, undermined by growing opposition to the Vietnam War. Ramparts magazine (for which both of us subsequently worked) and other newly alert media exposed the agency’s use of private foundations, including the Ford Foundation, to channel government funds to a long list of CIA favorites. Congressional investigations led by Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike revealed even more, creating what many in the foreign policy establishment saw as a void.



To fill it, the Reagan administration and a bipartisan majority of Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983. The new law stipulated that NED would work largely through three newly created “core grantees” – the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) – and the AFL-CIO’s Free Trade Union Institute, which had a long history of working closely with the CIA.

Would the CIA continue to run the new apparatus under cover of the State’s Department’s “democracy bureaucracy?” It certainly looked that way in November 1985, when the Center for Investigative Reporting teamed up with the French daily Liberation to reveal that NED had secretly intervened against France’s socialist President Francois Mitterrand. As confirmed by the New York Times, NED gave $833,000 to Force Ouvrière and $575,000 to the right-wing National Inter-University Union, which the original exposé described as “the student arm of a banned paramilitary organization linked to political bombings and assassinations.” NED passed the money through the Free Trade Union Institute (now the Solidarity Center), and the AFL-CIO official handling the grant in Paris was the 74-year-old Irving Brown.

“We’re defending democracy in France,” he told the Los Angeles Times, which reported that the right-wing student group had plastered Paris with posters attacking Mitterrand. When the story broke, the U.S. Embassy in Paris denied any U.S. government role.

Flash forward to the present. Both IRI and NDI claim to be private and independent of the U.S. government. But both receive Congressional funding through the Endowment and directly from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. According to their websites, IRI gets less than 1 percent of its funding from private donors, while NDI gets some additional funding from private foundations as well as multilateral organizations and foreign governments, from the U.K. and Germany to Yemen and Namibia.

Freedom House, the third NGO facing charges in Egypt, appears marginally less dependent on taxpayer money. According to its latest available financial report, the U.S. government provided over 75 percent of its funding. But its independence remains suspect. To cite only one example among many, the Financial Times reported in 2006 that Freedom House was “one of several organizations selected by the State Department to receive funding for clandestine activities inside Iran.” Freedom House confirmed the funding for activities in Iran, but declined to give details.

So what did these not exactly nongovernmental organizations do in Egypt? We put the question to one of their staunchest and most knowledgeable defenders, who asked to remain unidentified. Mostly the “NGOs” provided information to various Egyptian groups on how best to prepare themselves to participate in the various elections, he explained. Much of this information came from the experience of political groups all over the world.

Did the three “NGOs” provide this information to groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood? Yes, they did, and our source considered the collaboration extremely beneficial.

Did the three “NGOs” report back what they learned while working in the field? No, said our source, “they do not do political intelligence work for the embassy.” They are, he insisted, “exactly what they say they are,” by which he meant pro-democracy and nongovernmental.

Will Egyptians – and Americans – believe that a U.S. government-funded “NGO” does not share information with U.S. officials or take its marching orders from them? For many, it’s a hard sell given the nearly 70 years in which the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies have made covert use of real and purpose-built “civil society” groups.

Even more troubling, these government-backed NGOs only cast suspicion on truly nongovernmental groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and put at the risk the Egyptians and others who work with them. How pro-democratic is that?

But old habits die hard, and the faux NGOs  – even if they are not doing intelligence work — give Washington insight into, contacts with and a degree of leverage over formerly suppressed segments of Egyptian society that are now demanding a voice in who governs their country and how. These include everyone from Islamic groups like The Muslim Brotherhood to the nonviolent activists and computer nerds that Washington helped train and equip.

Does this mean, as many critics allege, that Washington tried to make a revolution in Egypt?

No, that’s much too simplistic. Washington continues to give far more support to old allies in the Egyptian military. From the State Department, CIA, Pentagon brass and military intelligence agencies to “pro-democracy’ NGOs, allied European groups like the Adenhauer Foundation, and various business and professional contacts, the U.S. has a finger in nearly every pie and tries, often without success, to use them all to promote whatever the White House perceives to be American interests in Egypt.

Like it or not, this is how Washington plays the game, and the wholesale meddling will continue unless and until the Egyptians truly decide they would rather run their own country their own way. In an Internet age, the tired tricks of the Cold War will increasingly blow up in Washington’s face, whether in Cairo, Havana or Tehran.

Frank Browning reported for nearly 30 years for NPR on sex, science and farming. He is the author of, among other books, "A Queer Geography" and "Apples."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>