News / Middle East

Foreign Aid Stirs Debate Amid Egypt’s Democratic Hopes

Congress watches Cairo politics heat up as Tahrir demonstrators turn protests into political agendas for historic parliamentary vote.

Egyptians follow the opening of the trial of ousted President Hosni Mubarak seen here on a TV screen as lay in the courtroom on a hospital bed. The broadcast of the trial, which began August 3, 2011, in Cairo, has since been suspended by the presiding jud
Egyptians follow the opening of the trial of ousted President Hosni Mubarak seen here on a TV screen as lay in the courtroom on a hospital bed. The broadcast of the trial, which began August 3, 2011, in Cairo, has since been suspended by the presiding jud
David Arnold

A sudden surge in U.S. government funding to strengthen the political flowering of Egypt’s budding democracy has stirred up controversies in Cairo, where hopes run high for the formation of a broad array of new political parties. They include the full political spectrum, from conservative Islamists to liberal secularists. And whichever political faction ends up on top will help determine the level of foreign aid the U.S. will be willing to give in the coming years.

In Washington, members of Congress will return to work in early September and attempt to determine 2012 foreign aid packages for dozens of countries. What Congress decides to give Egypt next year could determine whether the country remains an ally. U.S. lawmakers will likely have to decide on Egypt’s foreign aid package long before the Egypt’s parliamentary elections, planned for November, and long before anyone knows who will prevail: Islamists or any of the dozens of new political parties that have sprouted up.

The political stage changes from Friday to Friday, as thousands fill Cairo’s Tahrir Square to define their new roles in creating a popularly elected government. Recently, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s interim government with no free election experience , was angered that U.S. funds were distributed directly to an estimated 30 new pro-democracy groups. State-owned media have harshly criticized some of those groups for accepting the funds. In this pre-election period, many critics claim the U.S. funding threatens the independence of Egyptian politics.  

As of late, U.S. and Egyptian diplomatic relations have turned frosty. A magazine run by the Egyptian government published an article calling the new U.S. ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, the “ambassador from Hell.” A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the U.S. complained to the Egyptian government about the attack on the ambassador and, more generally, about “this kind of anti-Americanism that’s creeping into the Egyptian public discourse.”

The next day, newspapers tied the abrupt departure of James Bever, the administrator of all U.S. Agency for International Development projects in Cairo, to the military council’s criticism of U.S. funding of this year’s pro-democracy movement. The development agency then released a statement insisting that his departure was for internal reasons.  “Reports that Cairo USAID Director James Bever has departed Egypt due to anti-American sentiment are inaccurate,” a USAID spokesman said.

Cashing in on a new political space

The recent round of pro-democracy funding began when USAID took advantage of the new political space created by the popular revolt that brought down long-time President Hosni Mubarak.

“We told the Egyptians we’d take $165 million and provide it directly to the people who were out there demonstrating and to the organizations involved in the Arab uprising,” a senior USAID official told VOA. The agency has already distributed about $63 million to Egyptian pro-democracy groups. Most of the rest of the economic assistance money is going to a broader range of civil society groups dealing with women’s rights, new media and some traditional infrastructural projects such as sanitation. Some groups which have received democratization funding have evolved into political parties, the USAID official said. Under the Mubarak regime, much smaller amounts of USAID funds were annually distributed to civil society groups, but the list of beneficiaries was restricted to those groups approved by the Egyptian government.

The investment in Egypt’s current political transition was designed to produce quick, concrete results and have a tangible impact in support of Egypt’s economic recovery and democratic transition, according to statements made in May by USAID.  

Framers of an Egyptian constitution

The stakes in the November elections are high. Winners will not only take their seats in parliament, but 100 of them will also be tasked with writing a new constitution and determining the powers of the next president of a country with the largest Arab population in the world.

“There is already a lot of reluctance on the part of Egyptian NGO activists and pro-democracy activists to take American money in particular,” said Khaled Elgindy, a Brookings Institute scholar in Washington, D.C., who was on Tahrir Square during the second day of the anti-regime sit-ins. Pro-democracy funds from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and other international donors have been received more freely.

The military council has orchestrated much of the suspicion of U.S. election financing, Elgindy said. “There has been a concerted effort among authorities to vilify anyone who received American assistance as pushing foreign agendas. And that is part of the strategy of the Egyptian government to discourage people from receiving the aid but also to discourage the American government from giving it.”

The reluctance is also rooted in skepticism among Egypt’s new political movements over continuing U.S. support of Israel and assistance provided over decades to President Hosni Mubarak. Elgindy suggested that Mubarak’s own lawyers are likely to introduce evidence that could embarrass other Egyptians or the United States.  

“More broadly there will be the perception - no matter what happens in the trial that this guy that you supported, look where he is now,” said Elgindy.“That will be an embarrassment for the United States, a tough one for them to live down.”

Predicting Congress and Egyptian politics

Tahrir Square on any Friday is unpredictable, said Amr Hamzawy, a leader of Free Egypt, one of the new parties seeking a greater say in Egypt’s political future. On a recent Friday, conservative Salafis surprised liberals by taking over events that were supposed to be about a national consensus. “The square turned into an Islamist square where calls for application of sharia and Islamicization of the state law,” said Hamzawy. More than 30 liberal groups withdrew from the square.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members outside the party's new headquarters in Cairo, April 30, 2011
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members outside the party's new headquarters in Cairo, April 30, 2011

Elgindy said the Muslim Brotherhood is a major political player in the new Egyptian politics of the moment. “[It] is one of the most organized opposition movements in Egypt and so it is likely to do very well in the parliamentary elections. ”

The Muslim Brotherhood has created coalitions with almost all parties and with the government, Elgindy said. But soon they will be forced to take sides, and time is running out. The Muslim Brotherhood may be cause for concern for some members of Congress, too, Elgindy said. If U.S. lawmakers try to restrict funding based on the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as candidates or as members of parliament, “that will eventually backfire because it will lead to accusations that the Americans are trying to interfere in Egypt’s politics.”

How will US lawmakers determine Egypt’s foreign aid?

When the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut the 2012 Foreign Assistance budget, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee objecting to large across-the-board cuts and to “crippling restrictions on security assistance … with regard to the governments of Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen, and to the Palestinian Authority.” She said the bill required “burdensome and infeasible certifications” concerning involvement of foreign terrorist organizations. Although the bill spells out restrictions on foreign terrorist groups in some countries, the Muslim Brotherhood has not been listed as a terrorist group.

In the past, foreign assistance cuts proposed in the House have often been restored in the Senate. The U.S. financial crisis and the uncertainty of future elections in Egypt and other Middle East nations where politics are changing could make those restorations more difficult.

“They will have to wait and see,” said Hamzawy.  “It’s a moment of change, and of course there are different ambiguities, different risks which are based on the process of the moment we are undergoing in Egypt.”  

But Elgindy and Hamzawy believe Egypt’s foreign assistance levels will be much like they were in previous years: $1.3 billion in military aid and a smaller amount for economic assistance.

“That military aid package was the major source of leverage for the United States during that very uncertain 18 days of the uprising,” said Elgindy.  “I think the United States is not about to give that up. Especially when considering that their influence around the region is generally on the decline.”

When Congress considers economic assistance for Egypt, Hamzawy says if the U.S. can afford it, they should increase funding. During the five years he worked for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and Beirut, he testified three times on Egypt funding. He also recommended Congress maintain the $1.3 billion for military aid.

“We are in a country where half the population is living below the poverty line or at the poverty line,” Hamzawy said.  “We are facing real crises with regard to sanitation, with regard to major services provided to the population, education, health care and so on.  There’s been no clear improvement in the living conditions of Egyptians." 

He said U.S. economic aid performed well, but was insufficient for the magnitude of Egypt’s problems.

“The failure was on the regime side, a massive policy failure of the Mubarak regime. I’m talking about a regime which favored in its policies wealthy Egyptians and discriminated against the average middle-class Egyptians,” he added.

In the end, the Tahrir revolution in Egypt may introduce a more democratic and transparent government, but one that the United States cannot control. Hamzawy and others hope that the U.S. will keep its focus not on politics, but on providing a better life for more Egyptians.

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