An American non-profit organization dedicated to political reform in
the Middle East concludes in a new report that proposed changes in U.S.
foreign aid to the region could be a mixed blessing for those working
to promote democracy in that troubled part of the world.
report by the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
applauds the major increases being requested of Congress by the Obama
Administration in its 2010 foreign operations budget. The report says
those increases should dispel any notion that the White House is
steering clear of the previous administration's so-called freedom
agenda and abandoning efforts to actively promote democracy in the
POMED's advocacy director, Stephen McInerney, says
the Administration's budget request, which is likely to be approved by
the Congress later this year, contains large increases for programs to
promote democracy and good governance across the broader Middle East
and North Africa. The proposed funding for these programs, over $1.5
billion, is more than double the 2009 request.
adds that funding for democracy and governance programs now makes up 14
percent of total U.S. assistance to the region, the highest percentage
yet. But despite these positive signs, the requested budget falls short
in some significant, and discouraging ways, McInerney says.
would be a shift in the Arab world toward funding democracy and
governance programs through the foreign governments, through the Arab
regimes, and (another would be) the decrease -- the 29 percent decrease
-- in funding for independent civil society groups across the Arab
In particular, says McInerney, funding for civil society
groups is cut most sharply in two countries -- Egypt and Jordan. Both
are key U.S. allies and important partners in the Arab-Israeli peace
Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East Program
at the independent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes
the reduction in direct U.S. aid to grass-roots democracy activists in
these two countries is a concession to their autocratic leaders and a
clear indication of President Obama's policy priorities in the region.
"I think the Obama administration has set for itself a goal to achieve
peace in the Middle East, " Ottaway says. "Obviously, peace in the
Middle East would do a lot to promote stability and then you could
promote the democracy agenda. And that's why I think the Obama
administration is willing to sacrifice a democracy agenda as long as it
can get cooperation from Arab countries on the peace process."
believes President Obama will have to put pressure on Arab regimes to
open up what she calls "some political space" for opposition groups.
And she says Obama should raise the issue of democracy in his strategic
dialogues with the leaders of key Arab countries, such as Egypt.
report by the Project on Middle East Democracy notes that the most
dramatic increases in U.S. funding for democracy and governance
programs will be in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, where civil society
groups would receive a tenfold increase in American aid. Thomas Melia,
the deputy executive director of Freedom House, a non-profit group that
promotes democracy around the world, says this means fully 86 percent
of U.S. global spending on democracy and governance programs is being
allocated to just three countries currently at war. Melia believes
this could be seen as a reasonable investment in post-conflict
government reorganization and civil society development. But Melia
worries that it might also suggest a direct connection between U.S. war
efforts and U.S. promotion of democracy in the Middle East.
Freedom House official adds that the concentration of aid funding in
these three embattled countries also means less money will be available
for successful democracy promotion programs in other countries. Thomas
Melia believes the Obama administration should pursue a two-pronged
strategy on this issue. "They need to be able to work with governments
on matters of mutual interest," he says. "They also, I hope, will find
a way to be engaged broadly with civil society and with opposition
parties and independent groups to demonstrate that the American
interest in countries is not just with their governments, but with the
quality of life that the people of those countries enjoy."
POMED report notes that given the large-scale protests following Iran's
presidential elections in June, it is likely that Congress will approve
the $40 million requested by the White House for the Near East Regional
Democracy Fund. That fund has been supporting Iranian democracy through
a variety of educational and cultural exchange programs and by making
Persian language information available on line through international
But the Carnegie Endowment's Marina Ottaway
questions whether U.S. funding for democracy and governance in the
Middle East can be effective when so many governments in the region
continue to suppress dissent and stifle true democratic reform.
Ottaway doubts that outside funding can trigger reform under these
circumstances, and she has little hope for any kind of democratic
awakening - the so-called Arab Spring that some Western analysts had
predicted a few years ago. The Middle East analyst does hope that,
beyond its new budget request, the Obama Administration will provide
more explicit statements of U.S. policy on democracy promotion in the