By William Fisher
President Bush has taken a baby step toward fulfilling his pledge to spread democracy in the Middle East by giving grants totaling $1 million to six civil society organizations in Egypt, including perhaps the most controversial in the country – the organization whose leader spent a year behind bars on trumped-up charges.
The grants, which went totally unnoticed in the U.S. mainstream press, were announced in Cairo by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). While the agency has provided grants and training to other non-governmental organizations over the past five years, most of the recipients were trade-related or community support groups.
This is the first time USAID funding has gone directly to Egyptian organizations dedicated to political and electoral reform. The influential Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram, called the grants “a bombshell”.
An international development expert familiar with USAID’s programs in Egypt siad,“This is the first time that USAID has directly supported Egyptian organizations with an explicit democracy focus. Not only has USAID Egypt not supported Egyptian democracy organizations -- it's never supported the main American ones either.” He spoke on condition of anonymity,
The grants come on the heels of the announcement by Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, that he would alter the nation’s constitution to permit multiple candidates to run in the forthcoming presidential election. The 76-year-old Mubarak has been reelected by plebiscite for the past 24 years as the only candidate on the ballot.
They also appear to be in sharp contrast to recent statements from the speaker of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s parliament. Speaker Fathi Sorour, who is among key legislators working on the constitutional amendment, said that the People's Assembly plans to criminalize political parties and NGOs receiving foreign funding to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections or fund election campaigns.
The founder of one of the recipient organizations, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, spent more than a year in prison before being exonerated in 2003 on charges related to election monitoring activities. The incident sparked a crisis in Egyptian-U.S. relations, with Washington withholding $350 million in assistance. Dr. Ibrahim was accused of accepting a grant from the European Union without permission and misusing the funds. He was acquitted after two high profile trials.
The grants were announced at a press conference by U.S. Ambassador David Welch, who has been nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State. He said they were offered in response to Egyptian ideas for democracy-building activities, which the six civil society NGOs had submitted to the US Embassy. He added that the Egyptian government had agreed to the grants.
In addition to the Ibn Khaldun Center, other NGOs receiving grants include the United Group, the Egyptian Association for Developing and Disseminating Legal Awareness, the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy, the New Horizons Association for Social Development, and the Alliance for Arab Women.
Projects awarded USAID funding are "Promoting Transparent Elections in 2005 and Beyond;" (The United Group); "Promoting Democracy within Egyptian Political Parties;" (The Egyptian Association for Developing and Disseminating Legal Awareness); "Future Leaders Workshops and Community Meetings;" (The Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy); "Empowering Youth in Old Cairo;" (The New Horizon Association for Social Development); "Political and Electoral Rights Program;" (The Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies); and "Combating Terrorism through Community Participation" (The Alliance for Arab Women).
Welch said the new grants were geared towards achieving what President George W. Bush said about Egypt being "the great and proud nation... which showed the way towards peace in the Middle East... now show[ing] the way towards democracy," according to Al Ahram.
The project planned by the Ibn Khaldun Centre is similar to the activity that led to Ibrahim's jailing in 2000. Last December, Ibrahim announced that his Centre planned to monitor parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005, whatever the legal cost. He has also said he plans to run against President Mubarak.
Welch reportedly told Al-Ahram the U.S. decision to provide grants to Egyptian NGOs had “absolutely no link” to the arrest of Ayman Nour, head of the political party, “Tomorrow”. However, Welch said the U.S. has strong concerns about the opposition leader's arrest, which "we have expressed to the government.”
Nour, a member of the People’s Assembly, was jailed by Security Service police in late January on suspicion of forging signatures on the petitions he presented to the government in order to register his political party. He was released on bail on March 14 and then led a parade through downtown Cairo.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice cancelled a scheduled visit to Egypt after Nour’s arrest, but U.S. authorities have dismissed the idea that the cancellation of Rice’s visit to Cairo was a protest against Nour's arrest.
Twenty human rights NGOs told Reuters earlier this month that they would be monitoring Egypt's parliamentary and presidential elections this year.
The NGO grants are part of a systematic American effort to implement the U.S. president's Greater Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). "The events of 11 September led to more active US involvement in Egypt and the region," according to the USAID/Egypt Strategic Plan Update for Fiscal Years 2000/2009, which required adjusting the focus of USAID/Egypt on “vital sectors such as education, NGOs, democracy and governance”.
USAID funds will be directed to providing citizens with more avenues to participate in political life via improving the legal environment governing political activities, and that electoral system assistance would go towards improving voter registration, training of candidates, and other interventions deemed necessary for this purpose. USAID programs will also target reform-minded leaders, promote knowledge of democratic practices such as model parliaments, and facilitate joint democracy programs between American and Egyptian universities.
Since early 2000, USAID/Egypt has funded an NGO Service Center to strengthen the capacities of Egyptian NGOs. Most of the organizations signing up for training are community development and business support groups.
The impact of the constitutional amendment permitting multiple candidates to run for president remains unclear, as the People’s Assembly works to craft its language. Political parties require permission from the Assembly in order to enter candidates, and the Assembly is heavily dominated by Mubarak’s own political party. Mubarak has not yet announced whether he will stand for another term as president. He took office in 1981 after Anwar Sadat's assassination and is Egypt’s longest-serving head of state.