What Do Democracy Promoters Actually Do?

American lawmakers are furious with a mounting diplomatic crisis in Egypt, where dozens of nongovernmental workers, including 19 Americans, could face trial.

The United States says Egypt needs to let pro-democracy groups continue their work to help the country’s transition, but Egypt accuses them of operating illegally.

The work of 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 what’s going on now in Egypt.

“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, [and] Belarus,” he says. “Never anything like this.”

Craner says his group’s programs in Egypt are similar to its work elsewhere.

“We pass on knowledge not money about world experiences on political parties and on civil society and on governing,” he says. “And we bring people in from all around 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,” he says.

Cultivating Democracy

In a speech to the British Parliament in 1982, it was President Ronald Reagan who suggested that the U.S. get into the business of promoting what he called the “infrastructure of democracy.”

He said, “No, 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.”

Congress followed up by 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 become more international.

Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, says his organization works in 65 countries with employees from around the globe.

“It’s not the idea of going in and trying to impose a particular system,” he says.

Wollack says the his group trains election monitors, teaches civic groups how to advocate their causes and helps parties develop their platforms.

“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. We can do focus groups or polling and help parties better understand citizens’ needs,” he says.

Building Political Platforms

And, in countries emerging from civil conflict, the group has worked on codes of conduct.

“So parties agree to fundamental behavior and how they treat each other because not only are they competing with each other,” Wollack says, “But they also have to agree on the rules of the game.”

He says there has been demand for this work in many parts of the world, though he remembers a time when people argued that democracy wouldn’t fit tribalism in Africa or with Confucian 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.

“Suddenly, you know, the lid was off politically and there was a scramble of dozens of political parties forming,” he says. “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, [or] how to build a party platform.”

Carothers says he’s found that people show up for seminars even if they are suspicious about overall American foreign policy.

He was taken aback by the legal proceedings in Egypt and worries that Russia or other countries leery about international democracy promoters will be watching closely to see how far Egypt goes.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.