Five months after a popular uprising put an end to Hosni Mubarak’s nearly thirty-year reign, Egypt is still a long way from genuine democracy. A military junta runs the country and scores of Mubarak’s cronies continue to hold power in state institutions. Still, many hope that a multiparty liberal democracy is on its way. The United States, which has long had deep interest and involvement in what happens in Cairo, is eager to play a part in this transition.
Washington’s participation has stirred conflict in Egypt’s nascent democratic politics, however. Remnants of the old regime and Islamist groups, and, as of recently, the ruling military council, use the specter of foreign interference to smear liberals and some civil society groups, while NGOs and political groups that receive support from Washington are somewhat uncomfortable about working with a country that was once a pillar of support for the now-deposed dictator. Still, with its civil society crushed for more than thirty years, there may be little other recourse for Egypt.
Millions of American tax dollars are being funneled into Egypt via the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an autonomous organization overseen by the State Department. Just a few weeks after Mubarak was overthrown, USAID directed some $65 million toward "democratic development“ programming, projects to build civil society and political parties. This sounds like a lot, particularly to many Egyptian activists, but when compared to other areas of US foreign policy, it’s negligible: A former Pentagon official recently told NPR that the military spends $20.2 billion a year on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also pales in comparison to the direct aid that Washington gives to Egypt: About $2 billion a year since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. More than half of that goes to the military.
Most of these millions will go to American NGOs doing “capacity building” projects in Egypt, while a smaller amount goes directly to Egyptian organizations. The three biggest American democracy and governance programmers are the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Washington-based NGOs that say their mission is to strengthen democracy around the world. These groups intend to tutor Egypt’s young democrats on electoral politics, training them on conducting opinion polling and using its data, tailoring messages to constituencies, volunteer recruitment and organizing, and all the other trappings of a free and fair election, something Egypt has never seen in its modern history.
American officials and NGO representatives with knowledge of the democracy and governance programs say that so far the efforts have been hugely successful, with more than one thousand Egyptians lining up to submit grant proposals at USAID’s Cairo office and new political parties approaching NGOs like NDI and IRI on a daily basis. The Egyptian government, however, is not enthusiastic about what it considers foreign meddling in domestic politics. The Ministry of International Cooperation, which oversees foreign aid to Egypt, has made its dissatisfaction with USAID and others well known. In June, the head of the ministry, a Mubarak-era holdover, gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal excoriating democracy and governance programming. "I am not sure at this stage we still need somebody to tell us what is or is not good for us—or worse, to force it on us," she said.