Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings U.S.
By RON NIXON
The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by the Pentagon. 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 monitoring elections.
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, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The work of these groups often provoked tensions between the
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. “That training did play a role in what ultimately happened, but it was their revolution. We didn’t start it.”
Some Egyptian youth leaders attended a 2008 technology meeting in
“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 revolution.”
Ms. Qadhi, the Yemeni youth activist, attended American training sessions in
“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
“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
The cables, in particular, show how leaders in the Middle East and
Diplomatic cables report how American officials frequently assured skeptical governments that the training was aimed at reform, not promoting revolutions.
Last year, for example, a few months before national elections in
But nowhere was the opposition to the American groups stronger than in
Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt’s president, was “deeply skeptical of the
At one time the
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
The main targets of the Egyptian complaints were the Republican and Democratic institutes. Diplomatic cables show that Egyptian officials complained that the
Gamal Mubarak, the former president’s son, is described in an Oct. 20, 2008, cable as “irritable about direct
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
When their appeals to the
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 leaders.
In the face of government opposition, some groups moved their training sessions to friendlier countries like
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs
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