Thursday, March 1, 2012
I am in the midst of teaching a seminar on International Law and Development and my students and I have spent a fair bit of time talking about American-funded "Rule of Law" and "Democracy and Governance" projects (known in the aid biz as "ROL" and "D&G" programs) in Africa.
For this reason, I have been following with particular attention the "nonprofit trials" going on in Cairo. For those who have not been reading the papers lately, I will summarize: a bunch of Americans who work for democracy-building NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House, were charged by Egyptian authorities with violating various laws that govern and restrict NGOs in that country. In addition to the formal charges, there were dark whisperings emanating from various elements within the Egyptian government and society that these Americans -- possibly in cahoots with the CIA -- were bent on destabilizing Egypt as part of a neo-imperialist project. Several of the American NGO workers slipped out of the country before things got hot, but others, including the son of the current American Secretary of Transportation, felt compelled to seek refuge at the American embassy in Cairo. The NGO folks who remained in Egypt were barred from leaving the country.
The running debate in the media has focused on how the Egyptians were going to back their way out of the problem, since the American government made it clear that the Egyptians would not receive their annual $1.3 billion aid package from the U.S. if they didn't leave the American NGO folks alone. The Egyptians' initial response, quite clever and maybe even truthful, was that there was nothing they could do because legitimate legal authorities had lodged the accusations, and that the new Egypt is committed to rule of law -- exactly what those NGOs were supposed to be teaching the Egyptians!
Yesterday, according to the New York Times, the parties found a way out of the crisis, or at least the beginnings of a way out. The presiding trial judges recused themselves and higher ranking judges took over. They in turn rescinded the travel bans on the American NGO workers, though the charges have not been dropped and the accused will have to promise to return for trial. Don't hold your breath waiting for that.
What do we learn from all of this? Implanting western notions regarding rule of law, democracy and governance, and civil society in non-western societies is a tricky and complicated business.