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.

The 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 Middle East.

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.
McInerney 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.
"One 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 world."

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 process.

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."

Ottaway 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.
The 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.
The 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."

The 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 broadcasting.

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 region.