Foreign democracy assistance organizations working directly with political parties have come into the line of fire as some Arab governments have pushed back against democratization initiatives over the past two years. In Algeria, Bahrain, and Egypt in particular, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have been among the first to feel pressure. In Iraq, where such institutes expend the vast majority of their funding for the Middle East, not only do their employees face danger—an NDI employee was killed in Baghdad in January—but their programs are subject to constant political uncertainty. Such is also the case in Palestine. In Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Yemen, party institutes have maintained their freedom of operation, but even there the governments have sometimes exploited suspicions of foreign governments' agendas to put pressure on parties that accept U.S. assistance. In many other Arab countries institutes have no significant activities yet because they deem the atmosphere too restrictive.

Party aid programs primarily consist of workshops, seminars, and other activities aimed at transferring knowledge about political party development to local activists. In some countries party institutes have also carried out public opinion polling and helped organize election monitoring, activities that have irritated governments in some cases. Although U.S. party aid is not focused solely on preparing parties for electoral campaigns, it is during these campaigns that parties showcase the knowledge and skills they have gained from participating in assistance programs.

Problems between party institutes and Arab governments sometimes arise due to specific actions by institutes or their representatives, but more often are born out of a general sense on the part of governments that institutes have overstayed their welcome. In recent years Arab governments invited or at least accepted the presence of U.S. party aid organizations in order to burnish democratization credentials at what the governments perceived to be a relatively low cost to their control of domestic politics. This reluctant toleration turned into rejection when the party institutes became too effective in empowering opposition parties, too annoying to regime stalwarts, or too much in the way of government plans to control approaching elections.

Arab governments have attempted to use two mechanisms to derail the activities of organizations such as NDI and IRI: interposing government bodies and raising legal restrictions. In Bahrain, for example, after NDI had played an important role in persuading the principal opposition political society, al-Wefaq, to participate in elections, the government demanded that the institute work through a newly-created government body (the Bahraini Institute for Political Development) rather than communicate directly with parties. Likewise in Algeria, the government imposed a requirement that NDI consult with it before selecting partners for activities.

Regarding legal restrictions, governments have often allowed party institutes to begin work without formal licensing—only to impose licensing and other restrictions later on. Governments in Algeria, Bahrain, and Egypt are blocking NDI and IRI activities by arguing that there is no specific legislation sanctioning the establishment of branches of foreign non-governmental organizations, by complicating registration procedures where legislation exists, or by simply denying visas or residence permits to staff members. In Egypt, U.S. democracy assistance organizations found themselves in legal limbo after government officials and parliamentarians became angry about statements made to the press by a party institute representative in 2006; such organizations still have staff in Cairo but are unable to have formal offices or to hold activities. In Algeria and Bahrain, institute representatives were denied permission to remain in the country. When party aid organizations have responded by holding training workshops in other countries and inviting local party activists, governments have in some cases barred invitees from traveling.

The U.S. government—which funds the party institutes' democracy promotion activities through the National Endowment for Democracy, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of State—has protested such actions but has stopped short of exerting real pressure on Arab governments. In addition, the U.S. government has sometimes imposed restrictions on institutes, for example asking that they exclude from their activities in Egypt participants from organizations not licensed by the Egyptian government.

NDI and IRI operations continue to expand and enjoy wide latitude in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Yemen. In the lead-up to the Moroccan legislative elections in September 2007, IRI has expanded its staff without provoking an official backlash. In Yemen, NDI was among the domestic and foreign NGOs accredited to observe presidential and municipal elections in September 2006. But even in such countries, governments sometimes manipulate foreign democracy assistance organizations as a way to create suspicion about the agendas of opposition parties. In May 2007, a Jordanian government newspaper publicized a private meeting between the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the country's largest opposition party, and NDI representatives, claiming that the IAF was asking for NDI support ahead of municipal and legislative elections. An IAF statement characterized the story as another chapter in the Jordanian government's ongoing campaign against the Islamist party.

Dina Bishara is assistant editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin.