US efforts to ‘democratize’ at stake

US government efforts to support civil intervention in Egypt as a part of democratic reform have been subject to questions and criticism throughout the year, in particular last month. 

A US Agency for International Development (USAID) audit report dated 27 October 2009 stated that the effect of Egypt’s democracy and governance programs on the country’s democratic environment were "unnoticeable." The report stated that that “USAID Egypt’s Office of Democracy and Governance achieved only 52 per cent of its planned results…and successfully completed only 65 per cent of its activities during the fiscal year 2008.” The audit covered USAID’s democracy and governance allocations, which consist of a bilateral agreement between the two governments as well as a series of 80 direct grants to civil society organizations. 

The report cited the lack of support from the Egyptian government as one of the main obstacles to the success of the program. “[The government of Egypt] has shown reluctance to support many of USAID’s democracy and governance programs and has impeded activities,” reads the report. At the same time, the American media reported that in a congressional meeting in March of this year it was decided to slash US expenditure on democracy in Egypt, and that the Egyptian government should approve all non-governmental recipients. 

Egyptian approval is sought through the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which, according to law 84/2002, must endorse any external funding for it to be received by a registered non-governmental organization. This regulation does not cover entities that are not registered under the Ministry of Social Solidarity, such as private foundations. However these do not form the majority of American aid recipients. 

Margaret White, US embassy spokesperson, phrased the issue differently: “The Government of Egypt does not select which NGOs receive direct grants from USAID. USAID manages the selection process and decides which NGOs receive funding. As a courtesy, USAID informs the Government of Egypt which organizations have received funding after the grants have been made.” White added that, other than USAID, alternative governmental sources of funding such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative will award non-registered organizations. 

“US bilateral assistance to Egypt in the fiscal year 2009 was significantly reduced across the board, from US$415 million to a total of US$200 million […] and democracy programming was reduced proportionately,” said White. “Approximately US$5 million in the fiscal year 2009 will support Egyptian civil society organizations. Additional funding for Egyptian civil society organizations and US-based NGOs will be provided by other funding sources, including US$1.3 million in the fiscal year 2009 from the Middle East Partnership Initiative and approximately US$2 million from funds administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.”

Mohamed Samih is the director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, a foundation that does not fall under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Solidarity and which has received US democracy funds. The organization has received funds for projects including a media monitoring initiative during the elections and an internet radio service, both at a budget of US$250,000. Samih confirmed that his organization presented a proposal to USAID and was not accepted. “It won’t be a problem,” he said. “There are some US-based organizations that work with local partners, so the funding plans will continue." Samih added that he considered the change in policy to be a significant gesture by the US, since any endorsement of the government is considered a form of political pressure. 

But White reiterated, “We recognize the value of direct support for Egyptian civil society and believe it is essential to continue this support. In the fiscal year 2009, the US government is funding projects with a broad range of registered and unregistered NGOs focused on elections, political reform, human rights and rule of law, civic participation, media, and anti-corruption.”

The current changes to US economic aid allocation are to be seen under in the context of President Barrack Obama’s new administration. “The current administration is working on wiping out completely all what [former President George W.] Bush’s administration did, including positive and negative things. It is now opting to support authoritarian regimes that will preserve security and stability,” said Negad el-Boraie, director of the United Group, a local foundation of attorneys that received US$800 thousand from USAID. 

For el-Boraie, the US’s criticism of the Egyptian administration in its audit report and its simultaneous slashing of direct aid to civil society are connected to the same rationale. “For the Americans, aid is not supposed to change things by force, especially since the two administrations are friends. If the government has been criticized in the audit report and is now given the authority to approve which NGOs shall receive aid, that’s because the US wants to accommodate the Egyptian government’s needs in order to reach its goals.”

Similarly, Hisham Kassem, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, considers the American move to be a political one that cannot be isolated from the context of the new administration. “I have no understanding of the policies of the new administration. Obama wants to portray the image of a man of peace who is ready to cooperate with incumbent regimes.”

Mirette F. Mabrouk, non-resident Ford fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, does not see the current changes in aid policies as being so problematic financially as much as they are problematic politically. “It is not merely a case of how much money. […] It is a matter of US foreign policy that is not being quite as perceptive as it must be.”

In general, el-Boraie does not expect that the new limitations on aid allocation will affect civil society work in Egypt. “We’ve been working before without funding,” he said. The democracy funding hype that accompanied Bush’s administration merely generated more activities, but the movement was far from being dormant before then, according to el-Borie. As per the USAID audit report, democracy and governance funding levels increased in 2004 to almost US$30 million and reached their peak in 2008 at almost US$55 million. The report sums up rule of law, human rights, civil society and good governance funds to Egypt from the fiscal year 2005 until present, at US$181 million. In 2005, USAID in Egypt initiated the direct grants program, through which it directly awards aid to NGOs, in addition to working with the government under the framework of a bilateral agreement. 

For some, the democracy hype during the Bush administration crystallized the funding problem: namely an outpouring of aid in exchange for quick results in the context of an infrastructure that is far from ready. “Bush opened a door that has been closed for 60 years. But he overlooked basic issues of infrastructure that are indispensable, ahead of any reform. A transition period needs to take place and to tackle basic pillars of democracy: the judiciary, the media and the parliament,” said Kassem. 

Besides language critical of the government, the USAID audit report attributed the limited success of its democracy and governance operations in Egypt also to the recipients of the aid themselves. Issues raised in the report pertained generally to mismanagement, including a lack of grantee experience, a lack of proper evaluation mechanisms, and a lack of financial oversight. An anonymous source working in the civil society sector admitted that there is much misspending and misappropriation of aid money by organizations’ senior management. 

Such issues usually offer ground for a common argument, notably pushed by Newsweek’s Steven Cook who claims that “democracy promotion in Egypt only made matters worse” and that priority should go to other economic interventions that can improve people’s lives, such as health, education and infrastructure. Mabrouk does not, however, agree with this hierarchy of need. “People continue to use Egypt’s education and low literacy rate as a stumbling block to democracy. Education is vital to any country’s development but to curb any democracy effort until education catches up is an enormously self-defeating prophecy,” she said. 

Alongside the highly debated and fluctuating US economic aid to Egypt, America’s US$1.3 billion worth of annual military aid remains a steadfast and untouched commitment. “We remain committed to the longstanding US-Egyptian partnership, including in terms of military cooperation, which dates to the Camp David peace treaty,” said White. Despite the usual criticism of uncontested support for Egypt’s incumbent military regime, Kassem pointed to the stability that comes with such funding: “Aid prompts a rather transparent military expenditure and prevents an otherwise possible arms race with Israel’s paranoiac need to outspend Arabs militarily.”

In October 2009, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of the possible foreign military sale to Egypt of 24 F-16 aircraft fighters. The deal would cost US$3.2 billion, to be paid out of military aid allocation, and is envisioned as strengthening the country’s ageing air force. “The proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by enhancing the capability of Egypt, a major non-NATO ally. Delivery of this weapon system will greatly enhance Egypt’s interoperability with the US, making it a more valuable partner in an important area of the world, as well as supporting Egypt’s legitimate need for its own self-defense,” read the press release issued by the Agency, which also affirmed that the sale will not alter the region’s military balance. 

The debate on the effectiveness of aid money for both civilian and military intervention continues. Meanwhile, the recent uproar about democracy funding is held as a sign of the current American administration’s rapprochement to its Egyptian counterpart, a shift from the political pressure exercised during Bush’s term. 

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