WASHINGTON -- A former ambassador to Egypt called Tuesday for a “time out” in U.S. funding of American pro-democracy groups whose support for Egyptian civic organizations has set off a clash in relations between the two countries.
Frank G. Wisner, a former top U.S. diplomat and onetime envoy to Egypt, said in a appearance at a think tank in Washington that he believed American funding for groups involved in Egyptian politics was unwise at a time post-revolutionary Egypt is in the throes of political upheaval.
“Do we want to be busy on the ground with U.S.-funded political organizations in a period of disruptions?” Wisner told an audience at the Center for American Progress. “This is a moment for a time out in active use of U.S. institutions in Egyptian politics.”
The U.S. government has long funded groups such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, which help fledgling overseas political parties, human rights and civic groups learn how to function a democratic system. The nongovernmental groups offer their help to all such groups, with a goal to helping build democratic institutions.
Yet American funding is viewed with deep suspicion by many Egyptians, who suspect that its goal is to exert U.S. influence in the country. Two American pro-democracy workers, along with a number of Egyptians, are facing criminal charges for what Egyptian authorities view as illicit political activities connected to foreign funding.
Wisner, who was U.S. ambassador to four countries during a 36-year diplomatic career, said the Obama administration needs to “manage the NGO problem,” but should try to “get it down below the radar.”
He said U.S. officials should be giving higher priority to helping Egypt sort out the economic challenges it has faced since the beginning of the upheaval that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Pro-democracy groups have strong support from both political parties in Washington, and views like Wisner’s are rarely heard publicly in the capital. But they are not uncommon among practicing diplomats who need to find ways to advance diverse American interests abroad.
Wisner also suggested that the administration erred last year when it began calling for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad because of his government’s bloody attacks on protesting political opponents and civilians.
When U.S. officials call for a leader to depart and he or she instead remains in office “it does not leave you in an ideal position,” Wisner said.
The White House enlisted Wisner as an emissary to Egypt in February 2011, when it wanted to persuade Mubarak to step down.
Photo: Frank G. Wisner, in Vienna in 2007. Credit: Hans Punz / Associated Press