Egypt warns of foreign meddling as US pushes on with democracy programs

As Egypt prepares for its first free and fair parliamentary elections in recent memory this September, the US government and affiliated organizations are keen to play a part in the transition to democracy and spending millions of dollars in the process. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government and a public stigma around US support present major challenges.

“Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths,” US President Barack Obama said in an address on the Middle East in May.

In Egypt, a long-time ally of the United States, support for unsanctioned programming intended to build political parties and civil society is frustrating the Egyptian government.

“There are development partners that have for some time now been pushing the democracy and human rights agenda,” said Talaat Abdel Malek, an advisor to the Ministry of International Cooperation, which overseas foreign aid. “And I understand that and I understand the need for it, but there comes a point when there is something that is called national sovereignty that has to be respected.”

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the US government agency responsible for the distribution of civilian foreign aid, is leading the campaign.

USAID recently reprogrammed about 40 percent of its special post-25 January US$155 million budget for Egypt to so-called “democracy and governance” programming. Some of this money will go directly to Egyptian civil society groups, while another percentage will be delivered to US democracy-promotion organizations.

The details of USAID’s package for democracy and governance programming were finalized on 30 June, but US officials say they are unable to comment on specifics until plans have been shared with Egyptian authorities. The Ministry of International Cooperation is the Egyptian organization responsible for approving foreign aid projects.

USAID’s partner organizations on democracy and governance programming are working on a variety of projects in post-Mubarak Egypt, working with both civil society groups and many of Egypt’s new political parties. The programming for political parties includes training sessions covering topics like political messaging, volunteer recruitment, the use of polling data, and political mobilization.

Those responsible for programming say that they will “work with any party that does not advocate violence and advocates multiparty democracy.”

US officials and US democracy advocates in Egypt say that most training is open to anyone who wishes to attend and often involves representatives from different parties in order to ensure transparency. An official with a US-based democracy advocacy organization confirmed to Al-Masry Al-Youm, on condition of anonymity, that their organization has worked with Islamist parties.

Nonetheless, some here continue to be concerned that US democracy and governance programming is a way for Washington to push its foreign policy goals in a democratic Egypt and possibly maintain their close ties with Cairo even after their ally, former President Hosni Mubarak, has been deposed.

Islamist groups have used the specter of funding from the United States as a way to smear liberal and secular parties.

Influential Islamist columnist Fahmy Howeidy wrote that the US administration has been pouring millions of dollars monthly into Egypt in order to “buy off” allegiances of certain political parties and pro-democracy NGOs.

“[US democracy funding] is designed to serve a specific political agenda which has nothing to do with supporting real democracy in Egypt,” Howeidy wrote on 25 June in his daily column in the independent Shorouk newspaper.

Signaling out what he described as the funding politics in the West Bank, Howeidy said that US money has been channeled “to seduce Palestinian political elites to show more resilience towards Israel; and thus rendering the notion of armed resistance less plausible.”

“I think it is unfortunate that those perceptions are as pervasive as they are in Egyptian society,” Steven McInerny, the executive director of the US NGO Project on Middle East Democracy told Al-Masry Al-Youm by telephone from Washington. “I think that one of the best ways to deal with that is to be open and transparent about the activities, so that it is not something that is secretive and clandestine that encourages suspicion.”

Some Egyptian experts have also echoed Mclnerny’s concerns, saying that funding of Islamist parties and civil organizations have not been monitored previously.

“We will never know how Saudi or Gulf money are poured into Islamists,” said prominent journalist Ibrahim Eissa in the daily talkshow Fil Midan on the private Tahrir channel. “Unlike US officials or European ones who are obliged to disclose details of donations, grants and loans to foreign entities, the Gulf countries manipulate their populations’ resources without any checks and balances.”

Since the 1950s, Egypt’s civil society has depended on foreign funding as the ruling regimes have imposed strict limitations on the business community funding NGOs. It’s widely believed in Egypt that various Islamist groups have been funding from the Gulf countries, either directly from government agencies or indirectly from Gulf-based Islamic charity organizations. However, there are no independent studies to specify the amount or mechanisms of such funding.

While US organizations are quick to dismiss claims that they have an agenda, an October 2007 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Cairo to the State Department sheds light on the view of democracy and governance programming at the time.

The cable, which was released in June by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, says of democracy and governance programming under Muabrak, “We will sustain successful programs and create additional on-shore initiatives to optimize American influence through the looming leadership succession.”

These suspicions, though, are only part of the problem. USAID has faced considerable challenges in navigating Egypt’s restrictive NGO laws when it comes to financing democracy and governance programming.

The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, two of the biggest players in democracy and governance programming, are not legally registered with the Ministry of International Cooperation, which is a requirement if they are to legally obtain funding.

Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga, one of the few members of Mubarak’s cabinet who remains in power, has been outspoken in her criticism of USAID’s efforts in Egypt. “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," Aboul Naga told the US newspaper The Wall Street Journal in June.

This hostility from the ministry has not stopped US actors from funding programming. “The US government has provided grants in the past to legal entities, whether they are registered or not,” a US official with knowledge of the program told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

It is this position that has raised the ire of some at the Ministry of International Cooperation.

“There is a difference between your development partners extending a helping hand and beginning to interfere in what is essentially national affairs,” said Abdel Malek. “USAID in particular crossed that line, in the regard that there was a written agreement between the US and the government of Egypt as far back as 1975, saying that all aid should be channeled through the Egyptian government, including NGOs and civil society.”

The US official, however, contested the notion that USAID or other programs are working behind the Egyptian government’s back. “We do tell them everything,” the official said.

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