When public prosecutors and gun-wielding Central Security Forces stormed the Cairo office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in late December, they spent hours rummaging through the office, took some files and equipment, and suddenly left, according to Julie Hughes, country director for the US government-funded democracy advocacy organization.
“A general received a phone call and they all left rather abruptly,” said Hughes, which left the stunned employees rather puzzled. “We all looked around at each other and thought, ok, so we’ll lock up?”
Breaking the organization’s previously carefully guarded media policy, Hughes sat down with Egypt Independent to discuss the governmental investigation that the NDI is under, the travel ban placed on seven of its employees including Hughes, and possible future scenarios for the institute in Egypt.
Since the raid, Hughes said matters for her and her employees have only grown more confusing, with conflicting messages coming from all sides. Though through it all, she said, the NDI has faced few setbacks in running their programs.
Immediately after the raid, Hughes said the organization hosted 25 international monitors and gave them training to oversee the remaining rounds of parliamentary elections. The same monitors, she said, received certification from the Egyptian government.
“There was a level of trust there, on the part of the [election] witnesses,” she said. “That’s the strength of NDI.”
After the raids, they received 38 requests for political training from Egyptian party candidates including some from smaller, rural towns such as Sohag and Kafr al-Sheikh.
In recent months, she said, the organization has worked with 49 of the 62 currently registered Egyptian political parties. Hughes emphasized that their democracy training, workshops and other services remain open to groups of all political persuasions.
Of the 17 NGOs to be investigated for receiving foreign funding illegally, the NDI and its brother organization the International Republican Institute (IRI) have garnered the most attention due to their close relationship to American politics. The two have separate legal representation and are being investigated in two different cases, though Hughes says they communicate regularly. The IRI seems to be facing harsher penalties, including having its office sealed.
The most dangerous threat facing the NDI and its projects might not be the military council or Fayza Abouelnaga, the minister of international cooperation and leader of the campaign against foreign funded NGOs. Rather, the rising tide of negative popular opinion fueled by rumors of spying and incitement, might prove more perilous.
Recently, a newly elected member of parliament called for the execution of Egyptian employees of the American NGOs for treason, Hughes said.
Inflammatory sentiments such as his are why the group has opened up to the media about their activities, Hughes said. Previously, the Mubarak government told them that if they kept a low profile, they would be more likely to obtain their long-sought after official license to work in the country.
“There are no secrets here,” said Hughes. “Though we’ve always sought to be as transparent as possible, there’s been such a misunderstanding.”
While still under a criminal investigation, Hughes said the organization has received verbal messages from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that their registration will come through. They were even encouraged to reapply after the military raids.
“This is farther in the registration process than we’ve ever been before,” she said.
And she’s optimistic that the group will continue to provide services into the future, such as training on how MPs can provide services for their constituents, activities promoting women’s political participation, and public input processes that will allow citizens to contribute to the building of a new constitution.
Ultimately the day will come though, Hughes said, that the NDI will pack up its operations. This will happen once a robust civil society and democratic procedures exist in Egypt, she said.
Of the 120 countries the NDI has worked in, it now has offices in 65. The rest remain contacts who can advise other countries about the growing pains of democracy. This international network, Hughes says, is what makes the NDI work.
She said a common phrase within the ranks of NDI employees is, “We’re working to put ourselves out of a job.”
“Which is really true,” she added.
During Egypt Independent’s visit, the organization’s office in a Dokki residence appeared to be running smoothly, the location of the un-labeled building happily pointed out by a security guard standing in front of an open gate.
Hughes said she does not want or intend to leave the country, and at the end of the day, she believes that the truth and benefit of the organization’s activities will speak for themselves, and the Egyptian people will end up finding their own, distinct path to a more democratic future.
“Egypt will come up with its own solutions to problems endemic to the region,” she said. “But it will come at their hands, not ours.”
Addressing criticism that it helped foment the revolution, Hughes said it was “a crime” to give the credit of the uprising to anyone else but Egyptians. Those who disapprove of the NDI because they say a similar foreign-funded organization would never be allowed on American soil are also wrong, according to Hughes. She pointed to several foreign government NGOs that have offices in Washington.
“In the US, almost anyone can start an NGO,” she said. “It’s about transparency and the freedom to associate.”.
The travel ban, Hughes said, doesn’t unsettle her terribly. Rather, she sees the investigation and controversy as a natural part of the process of rebuilding a government.
“Transitions are hard, and it’s not uncommon to have bumps,” she said. “This change is dramatic and happening fast. I am optimistic that the more change comes the easier it gets.”