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.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More