WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Michael McFaul was in the second day of his new job as U.S. ambassador to Russia last month when Russian state television charged he was on a mission to stir up revolution.
The evidence? Among the reasons cited was McFaul’s work in Russia in 1992 for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S. pro-democracy organization the Russian television commentator alleged was “close” to U.S. intelligence agencies.
In another part of the world, Egypt recently took its long-term hostility to the NDI and other U.S. government-funded democracy-building groups to a whole new level.
Egyptian authorities raided the groups’ offices and placed travel bans on at least 19 U.S. citizens. The cases have been referred to criminal court.
For decades, U.S. organizations like the NDI, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House have promoted democracy and human rights around the world, from Russia and other former Soviet states to the nations swept by the “Arab spring” upheavals of the past year.
But some of their activities, such as monitoring elections and helping to develop political parties, are not universally appreciated in host countries. In nations where the transition to democracy is incomplete, the welcome mat can be quite small.
Governments in places like Egypt, which is still run by military rulers, and Russia, which has been dominated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for over a decade, often see democracy-building activities as a threat to their grip on power.
“Authoritarian regimes don’t like sharing power with their people - and they look for any excuse to distract from their problems at home,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank who worked for NDI in the West Bank, Gaza and Cairo from 1995 to 1998.
And the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which sparked deadly sectarian warfare and messy American attempts to build an Iraqi democracy, sparked a decline in global trust in U.S. pro-democracy efforts, experts said.
“In the best circumstances - think sub-Saharan Africa - the U.S. used to be relatively trusted for its far-sighted engagement on all three development fronts - economics, politics and security,” said Paul O‘Brien, vice president of policy and advocacy at Oxfam America, an international relief organization.
“As our overall global development agenda has become more short-term and politicized to achieve narrower national interests - think Iraq and Afghanistan - our pro-democracy agenda is less trusted too,” he said.
Some critics of U.S. democracy-building groups say hostility can extend beyond autocrats to average people who don’t want foreigners telling them how to run their lives.
“Egyptians have always been suspicious of outsiders meddling. In Egypt, such meddling is called the ‘invisible hand’ or ‘foreign fingers’,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor and Middle East expert at Georgetown University.
“Any organization that is there to work on the development of voting and political parties is leaving itself open to those suspicions and considerable risk - and not just from the courts and the police,” Sullivan said.
NDI president Ken Wollack denies his organization is meddling, or trying to foment revolution or regime change in any country. “We don’t support revolution” he said. NDI’s programs have always been intended “to support a democratic elections process that reflected the will of the people.”
“People can claim that it’s meddling, but it’s based on certain fundamental principles,” he said, including a universal declaration of human rights adopted by the United Nations.
In Egypt, he said, “Obviously it’s a delicate time, but I think that we’re hoping that through this challenging period that it ultimately will lead to a constructive dialogue between the authorities and groups like ours.”
“These (pro-democracy) organizations do not dictate what kind of leadership, or what kind of elections or the results of the elections,” said Senator John McCain, chairman of the board of IRI. “But they help with voter registration, with campaigning, with constitutions, with all the things that are the fundamentals of democracy,” McCain said in a Senate hallway.
Since their founding under President Ronald Reagan, the NDI and IRI have worked in more than 100 countries around the world. They have loose ties with the two major American political parties, but are not funded by them. Freedom House is older, dating back to the 1940s.
The groups are known as “non-governmental organizations,” but get most of their funding from the U.S. government - largely from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The government funding has sometimes fueled the charge that they are an arm of the U.S. government, or stooges of its intelligence agencies.
Starting around 2005, a backlash emerged in some countries, especially Russia, but also in Central Asia, China and parts of Africa and Latin America, said Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on democracy promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The backlash seems to have been at least in part a response to a new harsher perception of democracy promotion due to its close association with the war in Iraq,” Carothers said.
He cited former President George W. Bush saying the Iraq war “was all about democracy promotion - as well as the belief by some governments that the ‘color’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were caused by U.S. assistance to political and civic actors in those countries,” he said.
However, he added, the U.S. efforts in Georgia and Ukraine “were at most a modest helping hand to domestic political actors who did the hard work and took the risks themselves.” Political tumult in Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade became known as the “Rose” and “Orange” revolutions, respectively.
The U.S. confrontation with Egypt over its treatment of pro-democracy groups is threatening longstanding U.S. ties with that country.
U.S. military aid to Egypt, about $1.3 billion annually in recent years, is in jeopardy, Congress and the Obama administration say. Lawmakers are furious with the Egyptians; Senator John Kerry called the idea that Americans would be prosecuted there a “slap in the face.”
A solution has not yet been found. But in the longer term, after the crisis with Egypt, the United States may want to re-examine how it funds pro-democracy groups, perhaps channeling more money to local ones in the countries concerned, suggested Julie Taylor, a political scientist focusing on Middle East at Rand Corporation.
“Egypt has its own civil society and human rights organizations that are very effective and they work on these same issues and they have greater legitimacy than the U.S. organizations. The presence of U.S. organizations ends up undermining the activities and security of domestic human rights and democracy promotion organizations in Egypt,” she said.
Carothers said U.S. pro-democracy groups can alleviate some of the concern in host countries by being as transparent as possible about their work and by being nonpartisan when they work with political parties competing in an electoral process.
“But given the inherent tensions between an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian government and the goals of outside democracy supporters, there will likely continue to be conflicts over such work,” he said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Warren Strobel and Todd Eastham