by Ron Nixon
April 14, 2011
Even as the United States poured billions of
dollars into foreign military programs and anti-terrorism campaigns, a small
core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy
in authoritarian Arab states.
The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by
But as American officials and others look back at the
uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’
democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than
was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained
by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and
reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt,
the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar
Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups
like the International Republican Institute (IRI), the
Institute (NDI) and
Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in
Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic
cables obtained by
The work of these groups often provoked tensions between the United States
and many Middle Eastern leaders, who frequently complained that their
leadership was being undermined, according to the cables.
The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the
Republican and Democratic Parties.
They were created by Congress and are
financed through the
National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in
1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The
National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress.
Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government,
mainly from the State Department.
No one doubts that the Arab uprisings are home grown, rather than resulting
from “foreign influence,” as alleged by some Middle Eastern leaders.
“We didn’t fund them to start protests, but
we did help support their development of skills and networking,” said
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the
Project on Middle East
Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy and research group.
training did play a role in what ultimately happened, but it was their
revolution. We didn’t start it.”
Some Egyptian youth leaders attended
technology meeting in New York, where they were taught to use social
networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy.
sponsoring the meeting were
MTV, Columbia Law School and
the State Department.
“We learned how to organize and build
coalitions,” said Bashem Fathy, a founder of the youth movement that
ultimately drove the Egyptian uprisings.
Mr. Fathy, who attended
training with Freedom House, said,
“This certainly helped during the
Ms. Qadhi, the Yemeni youth activist, attended
American training sessions in Yemen.
“It helped me very much because I used to
think that change only takes place by force and by weapons,” she said.
But now, she said, it is clear that results can
be achieved with peaceful protests and other nonviolent means.
But some members of the activist groups complained in interviews that the
United States was hypocritical for helping them at the same time that it was
supporting the governments they sought to change.
“While we appreciated the training we
received through the NGOs sponsored by the U.S. government, and it did
help us in our struggles, we are also aware that the same government
also trained the state security investigative service, which was
responsible for the harassment and jailing of many of us,” said Mr.
Fathy, the Egyptian activist.
Interviews with officials of the nongovernmental
groups and a review of
diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks show that the
democracy programs were constant sources of tension between the United
States and many Arab governments.
The cables, in particular, show how leaders in the Middle East and North
Africa viewed these groups with deep suspicion, and tried to weaken them.
Today the work of these groups is among the reasons that governments in
turmoil claim that Western meddling was behind the uprisings, with some
officials noting that leaders like Ms. Qadhi were trained and financed by
the United States.
Diplomatic cables report how American officials frequently assured skeptical
governments that the training was aimed at reform, not promoting
Last year, for example, a few months before national elections in Bahrain,
officials there barred a representative of the National Democratic Institute
from entering the country.
In Bahrain, officials worried that the group’s political training
“disproportionately benefited the opposition,”
according to a January 2010
In Yemen, where the United States has been spending millions on an
anti-terrorism program, officials complained that American efforts to
promote democracy amounted to “interference in internal Yemeni affairs.”
But nowhere was the opposition to the American groups stronger than in
Egypt, whose government receives $1.5 billion annually in military and
economic aid from the United States, viewed efforts to promote political
change with deep suspicion, even outrage.
Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt’s president, was,
“deeply skeptical of the U.S. role in
said a diplomatic cable from the United States
Embassy in Cairo dated Oct. 9, 2007.
At one time the United States financed political
reform groups by channeling money through the Egyptian government.
But in 2005, under a
Bush administration initiative, local groups were given
direct grants, much to the chagrin of Egyptian officials.
According to a September 2006 cable, Mahmoud Nayel, an official with the
Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, complained to American Embassy
officials about the United States government’s,
“arrogant tactics in
promoting reform in Egypt.”
The main targets of the Egyptian complaints were the Republican and
Democratic institutes. Diplomatic cables show that Egyptian officials
complained that the United States was providing support for “illegal
Gamal Mubarak, the former president’s son, is described in
an Oct. 20, 2008
“irritable about direct U.S. democracy and governance funding of
The Egyptian government even appealed to groups like Freedom House to stop
working with local political activists and human rights groups.
“They were constantly saying: ‘Why are you
working with those groups, they are nothing. All they have are slogans,’
” said Sherif Mansour, an Egyptian activist and a senior program officer
for the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House.
When their appeals to the United States
government failed, the Egyptian authorities reacted by restricting the
activities of the American nonprofit organizations.
Hotels that were to host training sessions were closed for renovations.
Staff members of the groups were followed, and local activists were
intimidated and jailed. State-owned newspapers accused activists of
receiving money from American intelligence agencies.
Affiliating themselves with the American organizations may have tainted
leaders within their own groups.
According to one diplomatic cable, leaders
of the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt told the American Embassy in 2009
that some members of the group had accused Ahmed Maher, a leader of the
January uprising, and other leaders of “treason” in a mock trial related to
their association with Freedom House, which more militant members of the
movement described as a “Zionist organization.”
A prominent blogger, according to a cable, threatened to post the
information about the movement leaders’ links to Freedom House on his blog.
There is no evidence that this ever happened, and a later cable shows that
the group ousted the members who were complaining about Mr. Maher and other
In the face of government opposition, some groups moved their training
sessions to friendlier countries like Jordan or Morocco.
They also sent activists to the United States