Ever since the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of a number of Western "non-profit organisations" in December, there has been consternation in the Western press. The 43 people accused of failing to register with the government and of financing the 6 April protest movement with illicit funds have been referred to repeatedly in the Western press as 'NGO' workers. This has served successfully to deflect the media from examining whether in fact there was some basis to Egypt's claims that these people had been acting illegally.
As regards the accused organisations in Egypt, "NGO" might seem a strange term given that four of the five accused organisations receive the majority of their funding directly or indirectly from "their" governments. The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung is a German non-profit that receives 90 per cent of its funding from the German government. The International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) are two of the four core institutions of the grant-making institution the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
NED was created as an act of Congress and receives more than 90 per cent of its budget from the US government. Freedom House, while not one of its core institutions, also regularly receives the majority of its funding from NED. Chaired by Richard Gephardt - former Democratic Representative, now CEO of his own corporate consultancy and lobbying firm - the NED's Board of Directors consists of a collection of corporate lobbyists, advisors and consultants, former U.S congressmen, senators, ambassadors and military staff, as well as senior fellows of highly political "think tanks".
NED and its affiliates (particularly IRI) have been implicated in funding groups involved in organising coups against democratically elected leaders such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (2002), Jean-Betrand Aristide of Haiti (2004) and Manuel Zelaya of Honduras (2009). NED massively funded the political opposition to democratically elected Nobel Peace Price winner President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica (1986-1988) and, during the 1980s, NED poured funding into the cause of 'defending democracy' in France against her elected government, under Francois Mitterrand, which it regarded as dangerously socialist. As Barbara Conry of the right leaning Cato Institute once wrote: "Through the Endowment, the American taxpayer has paid for special-interest groups to harass the duly elected governments of friendly countries, interfere in foreign elections, and foster the corruption of democratic movements."
On 14 April 2011, the New York Times published an article entitled "U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings" in which it stated that: "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 IRI, the NDI and Freedom House".
One need only look at NED's official website to see that it is pushing a right-wing agenda in Egypt, with nearly half of the $2,497,457 allocated to Egypt in 2010 going to the Center for International Private Enterprise for actions such as strengthening civil society's "capacity to advocate for free market legislative reform" and other large grants awarded to youth organisations for training and mobilising activists in the use of new and social media.
But this is just the funding that is openly boasted of and the Egyptian authorities are finding it difficult, apparently, to trace the organisation's funding. Dawlat Eissa - a 27-year-old Egyptian-American and former IRI employee - claimed that that the IRI was using employee's private bank accounts to channel funding into IRI covertly from Washington.
A leaked Cairo US embassy cable from 2008, entitled "April 6 activist on his US visit and regime change in Egypt", revealed how the US were in dialogue with one April 6 youth activist about his attendance at the 2008 Alliance of Youth Movements Summit in Washington. The cable also detailed the youth movement's goal to remove Mubarak from power before 2011. The activist called Mubarak "the head of the snake" saying that it must be removed before democracy could take root.
While the Embassy, deemed this plan "highly unrealistic", the dialogue shows that from as early as December 2008 Washington was fully aware of the movement's aim to remove the Mubarak regime from power. Critics claim that the defendants in the 'NGO' trial are being charged with a law that is a "relic of the Mubarak era". But in what country does the law tolerate foreign governments funding and training opposition group activists aiming for regime change? The US?
The term 'NGO' is used deliberately to create an illusion of innocent philanthropic activity. In this case the Egyptian government is investigating the operations of US state funded organisations which have a proven history of covertly funding political parties, influencing elections and aiding coups. Yet one mention of the Egyptian government's raid on the offices of so-called 'pro-democracy NGOs' in Cairo was enough to spark an international outcry. There was an almost complete failure by the Western press to highlight at all the history of the organisations involved or the potential validity of the charges being brought against them.
Jenny O'Connor is a graduate of International Relations and Communications Volunteer at the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland