What Do Democracy Promoters Actually Do? Egypt might put nongovernmental workers on trial because it says they are operating illegally. But the U.S. insists Egypt needs to allow the pro-democracy groups to continue their work. American groups say they are helping political parties develop platforms around citizens' needs.
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What Do Democracy Promoters Actually Do?

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What Do Democracy Promoters Actually Do?

What Do Democracy Promoters Actually Do?

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Nineteen Americans who've been charged with crimes in Egypt were doing jobs that Americans do around the world. Non-profit groups promote democracy. Now Egypt's military government is cracking down on pro-democracy organizations from the United States and other nations. They're accused of using foreign funds to instigate unrest. These groups include the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Both have ties to American lawmakers, both are federally financed. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on what the organizations do.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Democracy promotion groups have raised suspicions in many countries. But Lorne Craner, who runs the International Republican Institute, says he's never seen anything like Egypt.

LORNE CRANER: We have never had our offices raided. We have never had no-fly orders. We've never had people pulled in to meet judges, and we've never faced the threat of trial. And we've been working for 30 years in places like Russia and China and Zimbabwe and Venezuela, Belarus. Never anything like this.

KELEMEN: And Craner says the International Republican Institute programs in Egypt are similar to its work elsewhere.

CRANER: We pass on knowledge, not money, about world experiences on political parties and on civil society and on governing. And we bring people in from all over the world, from central Europe, from Asia, from Latin America, from the United States, to talk about how they have formed political parties and the mechanics of political parties, and the same for nongovernmental organizations.

KELEMEN: It was President Ronald Reagan, who in a speech to the British parliament in 1982, suggested that the U.S. get into the business of promoting what he called the infrastructure of democracy.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.

KELEMEN: The U.S. Congress followed up, creating the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are modeled on German party foundations. In recent years the democracy promotion business has flourished and has become more international. Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, says his organization works in 65 countries with employees from around the globe.

KENNETH WOLLACK: It's not the idea of going in and trying to impose a particular system.

KELEMEN: Wollack says NDI trains election monitors, teaches civic groups how to advocate their causes, and helps parties develop their platforms.

WOLLACK: We work with parties across the democratic spectrum. We don't identify ourselves with a particular ideology. We help on the process of platform development. You know, we can do focus groups or polling and help parties better understand citizens' needs.

KELEMEN: And in countries emerging from civil conflict, NDI has worked on codes of conduct.

WOLLACK: So parties agree to fundamental behavior in how they treat each other, because not only are they competing with each other but they also have to agree on the rules of the game.

KELEMEN: Wollack says there's been a big demand for this work in all parts of the world, though he remembers a time when people argued that democracy wouldn't fit Tribalism in Africa or with Confucius philosophy in Asia. The Middle East was also written off. Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the U.S. had been on the side of dictatorship in Egypt for 30 years, so the uprising there offered a chance to turn a page.

THOMAS CAROTHERS: Suddenly, you know, the lid was off politically and there was a scramble of dozens of political parties forming. That's a common pattern in newly democratizing countries. All these people are eager. They want to be part of the new political scene, but the truth is they don't know a lot about grassroots organizing, mobilizing volunteer groups, how to do effective messaging, how to build a party platform.

KELEMEN: Carothers says he's found that people show up for seminars even if they're suspicious about overall American foreign policy. He was taken aback by the legal proceedings in Egypt and worries that Russia and other countries leery about international democracy promoters will be watching closely to see how far Egypt goes.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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