Is Exporting Democracy Subversive?
On Sunday, February 5, the Egyptian government announced that it was bringing criminal charges against 43 the leaders (19 of whom are Americans) of foreign-financed non-government organizations (NGOs). Particularly prominent targets were the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, two American-led NGOs attempting to bring democracy in Egypt through fair elections. These arrests followed police raids on nine nonprofit NGO group offices -- raids which involved the confiscation of money, computers and files.
Official U.S. reactions were swift and forceful. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "[w]e are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt." President Obama had previously expressed this sentiment to Egypt's acting chief executive, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Moreover, forty members of Congress had sent a signed letter to Tantawi telling him that "[t]he days of blank checks are over[.]" Even Egypt's Washington lobbying firm dropped the country as a client in response to the arrests and forthcoming trial.
The financial stakes are huge -- to the tune of some $1.55 billion in annual foreign assistance. Moreover, this dispute could sever one of America's most reliable Middle Eastern alliances, an impact that bodes poorly for Israel.
The quick U.S. condemnation was predictable. After all, NGOs have long helped nations needing assistance, and who could possible object to helping Egypt become more democratic? And why should Egypt bring criminal charges when expulsion would be punishment enough?
To appreciate the Egyptian reaction, imagine if the shoe were on the other foot. Now, Muslim nations fund U.S.-based groups to proselytize Islam. Activities might include handing out free Korans; organizing seminars for public officials on sharia law; explaining the evils of charging interest; advocating modest attire to guard public morality; and, for good measure, enlightening us on the necessity of jihad. Activist lawyers might even be trained to challenge laws judged offensive to Muslims. And don't forget explaining why American-style democracy is wrong, since it may contravene Islamic teachings and therefore requires unelected Islamic clerics to veto un-Islamic laws.
Clearly, most of these activities would be First Amendment-protected, but at some point, the proselytizing might slide into subversion, if not treason. This scenario is hardly hypothetical. Saudi groups have long subsidized hundreds of mosques and numerous Islamic organizations whose message, at least in the opinion of some, is "un-American." Yes, the numbers who might be indoctrinated into Islamic terrorism may be small, but it hardly takes an army of the radicalized to inflict horrendous damage. I'd guess that if it were up to a popular vote by Americans, these Islamic missionaries would be rounded up and deported.
Back to Egypt. Is Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi all that wrong if he concludes that a few hundred Egyptians will become radicalized by learning how to run tumultuous Western-style elections? And what about all those Egyptians now converted to a Western ideology of (an ill-defined) "human rights," not Islam, as the touchstone of a good society? Who knows where these "un-Egyptian" views might go? Tantawi certainly understands that revolutions often begin with only a few revolutionaries espousing what appears to be an oddball view.
True, Tantawi may be engaging in anti-foreigner rhetoric to divert attention away from Egypt's domestic tribulations, but manipulation acknowledged, bringing criminal charges against the NGOs explicitly highlights the deep tensions between nations like Egypt that are growing more Islamic and Western democratic values. Americans and Europeans as so enamored of our historic political accomplishments -- honest periodic elections, free speech, political equality, rule of law, the right to petition government to redress grievances, gender equality, and all the rest -- that it is difficult to imagine that some nations legitimately see these ideas as subverting their own traditions. Perhaps Field Marshall Tantawi may have read some websites. The National Democratic Institute, for example, is explicit in its promotion of gender equality, a belief that challenges core Islamic values. Meanwhile, the International Republican Institute works to energize young people and varied marginalized groups -- just what today's riot-plagued Egypt needs. And Egypt is hardly the first country to be suspicious. Similar hostility to democracy-promoting NGOs has occurred in Serbia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
It is one thing to invite the Peace Corps to install modern irrigation equipment; it's quite another to have outsiders explain why citizens' deference to Islamic clerics is wrong and why electoral majorities, even if secular, should rule. Or that all opinions count equally. These messages are subversive. The U.S. understands this selectivity well: we'll happily take Saudi oil, but no thanks to their subjugation of women.
This legal brouhaha might serve as a useful wake-up call regarding America's well-meaning but often calamitous ideological overreach. This is especially true if one believes that foreign policy should primarily be about winning allies to defeat our enemies, not about cloning U.S. society. As our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan sadly illustrates, nation-building may be nearly impossible, but altering underlying cultures is even more difficult. Democracy may be wonderful, but we should recognize that it is not for everyone. Keep in mind what happened to 19th-century religious missionaries who challenged local deities and belief: they were killed.