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Egyptians claim bias at US group

WASHINGTON - About two months before Egyptian police stormed the offices of US-backed democracy organizations last year, seven Egyptian employees resigned from one of the American groups to protest what they called undemocratic practices.

They complained that the International Republican Institute, described as nonpartisan, had excluded the country’s most popular Islamist political organization from its programs and collected sensitive religious information about Egyptians when conducting polls to send to Washington.

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The US group also ordered employees to erase all computer files and turn over records for shipment months before the raids, the Egyptian workers said.

“Our resignation is a result of many different practices we have been witnessing that seem suspicious and unprofessional,’’ the employees wrote in their Oct. 17 resignation letter.

Interviews and documents show that the workers’ protest and a broader government crackdown helped expose what US officials do not want to admit publicly: The US government spent tens of millions of dollars financing and training liberal groups in Egypt, the backbone of the Egyptian uprising.

This was done to build opposition to Islamic and pro-military parties in power, all in the name of developing democracy and all while US diplomats were assuring Egyptian leaders that Washington was not taking sides.

“We were picking sides,’’ said a senior US official involved in discussions with Egyptian leaders after last year’s revolution swept President Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades. The official requested anonymity.

This was not the democracy that Dawlat Soulam, one of the employees who quit, said she had hoped to deliver to Egypt when she went to work for the International Republican Institute.

Soulam, a New York City-born Egyptian with dual citizenship, and the others said they were troubled by work being done under the programs run by Sam LaHood, the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“Are we doing something we want to hide from the Egyptians?’’ Soulam said she asked her bosses. “Are you playing a political agenda and you don’t want to show that you want to take sides?’’

Institute officials deny doing anything improper and dismiss the former employees as disgruntled. But the workers’ small revolt, unknown to most, was significant because it reflected a growing sense in Egypt that US-backed democracy programs were less about helping Egyptians and more about serving US interests.

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