Commentary: Egypt's democracy falters

Special to McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 10, 2012 

I am not surprised that the Egyptians are scurrying around trying to crush U.S. democracy programs like an elephant trying to step on a mouse.

I taught democratic journalism seminars for the U.S. government in many countries emerging from years of repression. When my students tried to be objective, quote the opposition, report on budgets and obtain other restricted documents, they rapidly fell into the gun sights of the powers that be.

And then, when they were threatened, demoted, reassigned or worse, they found no one to turn to.

The U.S. embassy which sponsored and arranged my seminars had no power to protect them. Nor did the U.S. journalism groups that sometimes asked me to run the programs.

You can teach democracy but you can’t make the society practice it.

Problem with democracy is that it requires people who respect freedom and accept criticism from others.

So it’s not a big surprise that the seeds of democracy sown by American aid programs have fallen on barren soil in Egypt and many other countries steeped in centuries of repression.

In Egypt, 19 American democracy advisers are to be tried for using more than $60 million in U.S. aid funds for promoting democracy, election monitoring, training of new political parties, honest journalism and other tasks that authoritarian officials see as undermining their power.

The Egyptian minister of planning and international cooperation, Fayza Abul Naga, who launched the attacks on foreign aid groups, is a holdover from the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and a close ally of the military ruler of Egypt today, Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi. Her office accuses the U.S. aid workers of supporting opposition candidates for office so they will serve foreign interests.

In part, the accusations stem from the fact that the U.S. aid programs deliberately — at the behest of the U.S. Congress — bypassed the Egyptian government and gave funding and training directly to Egyptian non-governmental organizations — also known as civil society.

This is not the first time Naga has found herself at odds with the United States. From 1992 to 1996 she served as a senior advisor to UN Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali — until his bid for a second term was vetoed by the United States. He was the only UN secretary general not to serve a second term.

The Clinton administration vetoed his second term — sending Naga away from the pinnacle of world power in New York City — because Boutrous-Ghali failed to support U.S. plans to beef up UN forces and halt the Yugoslavia civil war; and because Republicans demonized the UN, forcing Bill Clinton to dump Boutros-Ghali.

Naga is also from Port Said, a city seething with hatred of Israel and — by extension — the USA — after suffering from Arab-Israel wars since 1948.

But it is no surprise that hard line authoritarian rulers have suspicion and disdain for U.S.-backed democratic movements.

The Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 might never have taken place if not for U.S. aid. First, the former communists in control of the Kiev government declared their candidate won an election. Then, a U.S.-funded think tank tallied up exit polls that showed the government had lied and it really lost the election.

Next, a Ukranian TV newsman trained by a U.S. aid program broadcast the exit polls and set up its cameras on the main square for an all night vigil. Up to one million people came to join the vigil. Then the Supreme Court — which had been brought to visit U.S. courts in action — ruled the election was invalid and the government had to step down.

Furthermore, U.S. legal, legislative, journalism and other trainers taught judges, prosecutors, legislators and journalists how to do their jobs in a democratic system.

Russia was panicked by the success of these democracy aid teams, operated by the Congressionally funded National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, the U.S. Bar Association and other groups. It began clamping down on them in Russia. Other autocrats expelled the democracy trainers as well, fearing they aimed to help the opposition overthrow their regimes.

In a bitter irony, although U.S. aid did help democratic forces hold elections and win power in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and the Palestinian territories, these countries backslid into coups or else the old guard won back power.

Either the new democratic forces were incapable of managing their countries, or the old guard rapidly learned the techniques of advertising and marshalling political forces to win back control. In some cases, people turned from the chaos of democracy to the firm hand of strongmen like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine.

People don’t change. They may like the feeling of liberty but they also fear the lack of guidelines.

In Egypt and in many Middle East countries, there is a huge youth population lacking jobs, housing and opportunities. People fear the young will erupt into crime and violence — similar to the soccer riots in Port Said and Cairo, and the ongoing rock and tear gas fights at Tahrir Square. Because they fear the youth, people have long accepted the ruthless power of the secret police and the authority of the kings and strongmen from Rabat to Baghdad.

While I love my liberty and would like every other country to enjoy it as well, maybe it’s wise for us to accept that what other countries choose for their way of life is best for them to decide.

If someone comes into my house and tells me better ways to plant my yard and build my bookshelves and paint my walls and cook my meals, even if they are right I will resent it and probably ignore all they suggest. So what is happening in Egypt is no big surprise.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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