Can USAID Be a Force for Good In Egypt?

Can USAID Be a Force for Good In Egypt?

Can USAID Be a Force for Good In Egypt?

While the US funds democratic reform projects in the post-Mubarak age, Egyptians are mistrustful of American meddling in their domestic affairs.



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.

Officials from the ministry continue to express their frustration. “There is a difference between your development partners extending a helping hand and beginning to interfere in what is essentially national affairs,” says Talaat Abdel-Malek, a senior advisor to the minister of international cooperation. “USAID in particular crossed that line” by passing out funding to NGOs that are not licensed with the government. On July 12, the Egyptian government upped the ante, announcing the formation of a fact-finding committee headed by the minister of justice to investigate foreign funding for unlicensed local and international NGOs, a clear swipe at the democracy and governance programs.

Suspicion of foreign interference is a theme that resonates with Egyptians. There is a deep-seated feeling here that foreign, in particular American and Israeli, forces want to interfere in local politics. Rumors circulate about different foreign states trying to engineer protests or elections in their favor. The theory that Egypt’s pro-change protesters are foreign agents began during the eighteen-day uprising, when state media, presumably at Mubarak’s urging, pushed the story that Tahrir Square was full of foreign provocateurs.

Today, American democracy and governance programs are a favorite target for Egyptians who oppose the revolution. Mubarak supporters often assert, not incorrectly, that pro-change activists received training “in Freedom House and in Serbia.” (Freedom House, another Washington-based NGO that advocates for democracy, has worked with Egyptian activists. These kinds of NGOs often run programs sharing experiences with other activists who have undergone democratic transitions.) Islamist groups like to claim that secular liberal parties in particular rely on foreign funding, making them agents of the United States. At a recent pro-military protest, demonstrators accused those holding a sit-in in Tahrir Square of receiving foreign funding.

On July 23, the ruling military junta joined in the public shaming of civil society groups. Just hours before of a planned, peaceful anti-military march was attacked by angry civilians, a military spokesperson appeared on Al-Jazeera and publicly accused the April 6th Youth Movement, a seasoned pro-democracy group, of receiving foreign funding to undermine the Egyptian state. (April 6th representatives have condemned the accusation, but the argument has gained traction with those who oppose continuing protests.)

In Egypt, as in much of the region, many are hostile to the United States for an overall foreign policy that is perceived as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. Egyptians, in particular, have reason to resent American interference in their politics. For years Washington backed Mubarak’s repressive regime with military and economic aid and political support as a force of “stability” in the region, due to the country’s strategic location and peace treaty with Israel. Especially under former President George W. Bush, the White House was happy to reap the fruits of Mubarak’s police state for intelligence purposes, giving the green light to crackdowns on Islamist groups and employing Egyptian intelligence in the notorious extraordinary rendition program.

During the early days of the uprising US officials kept their support for Mubarak steadfast. On January 25, the first day of what became the revolution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Mubarak’s government “stable” and urged “restraint” from both the protesters and the security forces. (This may contribute to the Obama Administration’s overwhelming unpopularity in Egypt. A recent poll by the American Arab Institute found that only 5 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States.) But with Mubarak gone, Washington seems ready to get on the right side of history.

But USAID and American NGOs’ democracy and governance programming is not just a post-Mubarak phenomenon. Under the Bush Administration’s so-called Freedom Agenda, the budget for this kind of programming grew and the White House and the State Department pressured Mubarak on democratic reforms. (During last winter’s uprising, right-wing pundits came out of the woodwork to call Egypt’s protests a successful byproduct of Bush-era policies.) But while US officials doled out money to Egyptian democrats, the official aid to the military and the state kept flowing and terrorism suspects were tortured in Egypt’s prisons.

It is unlikely that Washington involves itself in another country’s political parties and civil society without some self-interest in mind. An October 2007 cable released by WikiLeaks from the US embassy in Cairo suggests that democracy and governance programming were part of an effort to “optimize American influence” in Egypt during the leadership succession crisis that the embassy predicted would follow Mubarak’s retirement or death. (They did not foresee the revolution.) With millions of dollars of US government money pouring into Egypt’s political life, State Department officials likely hope that the new political parties will remember fondly this support if they come to power.

There are other reasons to be skeptical. The so-called Color Revolutions in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and Central Asia saw similar uprisings to Egypt’s, with largely nonviolent tactics used to overthrow corrupt pro-Moscow autocrats. Opposition movements in those countries received the backing of NDI, IRI, Freedom House and other democracy and governance programs. But while those revolutions succeeded in ousting dictators, they never brought on true democracies and, in some cases, members of the former regime to power. The US-backed model of democratic revolution proved not to be sufficiently revolutionary.

Despite the many challenges and concerns, many believe that there is still an important role for USAID, American NGOs and other foreign funders in Egypt. Under thirty years of Mubarak’s repression (and even before under the late President Anwar el-Sadat), Egyptian political life was stagnated and civil society demolished. Mubarak kept strict controls on parties and NGOs and how they obtained funding. Even in the post-Mubarak era, there is still little support for the kinds of institutions that usually fund political movements, like religious organizations, labor unions or the business community. If Egypt’s emerging democrats are going to successfully build civil society institutions and an electoral culture that was never allowed to exist before, money will be necessary. And it looks unlikely that that money will come from inside Egypt for a while. “There is no tradition of businessmen giving to civil society without their own, often corrupt, motives,” says Ahmed Salah, a longtime anti-regime activist in his 40s, as we sit on the shabby, second-hand furniture in the barebones office of his upstart pro-democracy NGO.

“All of the civil society in Egypt, every NGO, gets its money from abroad,” Salah says. “Where else would it come from?” Salah has received foreign funding for his NGO and participated in democracy and governance programs in the past, at times coming under fire from other local activists for his participation. (Fearing reprisal from the Ministry of International Cooperation, Salah said he did not want the name of his NGO published.)

As USAID and its American NGO partners proceed with their democracy and governance programming in the run-up to the first legitimate elections in most Egyptians’ lifetimes, they must do so with an abundance of caution and sensitivity to people’s suspicions. Stephen McInerney, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, realizes that. “Training and support made available to all groups can avoid them being seen as trying to engineer elections,” McInerney says. Support must be provided to “the system,” rather than any individual actors.

Openness and transparency may not be enough to assuage all Egyptians’ concerns. No matter how transparent USAID is about its operations, it is unlikely that any party will advertise itself as receiving funding from Washington. But with the money quickly moving out of the NGOs and USAID and into programming for a young democratic system, foreign funders and the political organizations that benefit from them must tread carefully amid the tense atmosphere of post-Mubarak, pre-election Egypt.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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