Saturday, March 26, 2005


By William Fisher

For the first time in the twenty-five year history of American aid to Egypt, the U.S. Government is providing funds directly to organizations advocating for human rights, democracy and fair elections.

The $1 million in grants announced this month is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions the U.S. has contributed to Egypt – second only to Israel as a recipient of American help. It is a baby step.

But its significance should not be under estimated.

The six recipients, all non-governmental organizations (NGOs), will conduct programs with such titles as “Promoting Transparent Elections in 2005 and Beyond”, “Promoting Democracy within Egyptian Political Parties”, “Empowering Youth in Old Cairo”, and “Political and Electoral Rights”. These organizations deserve to be rewarded: They have struggled for years against an authoritarian regime and an absurdly repressive NGO law.

The grant-winning programs were chosen by the NGOs themselves and submitted competitively to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Cairo. The American Ambassador said the Egyptian Government had been consulted and was on board.

But if there is a government more disliked than their own or Mr. Sharon’s, it’s ours. Which might help to explain why some of Egypt’s better known human rights groups declined to participate for fear of being seen to be too closely associated with the U.S.

Nonetheless, it would be reasonable to ask, “What’s going on? Why now?”
As is always the case in the Middle East, a number of complex and sometimes contradictory forces are at play.

Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, said he would alter the nation’s constitution to permit multiple candidates to run in the forthcoming presidential election. The 76-year-old Mubarak, the country’s longest-serving leader, has been reelected by plebiscite for the past 24 years as the only candidate on the ballot.

Inexplicably, soon thereafter, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s parliament, who is among key legislators working on the constitutional amendment, said the Assembly plans to criminalize political parties and NGOs receiving foreign funding to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections or fund election campaigns.

Earlier, there was President Bush’s pledge to ‘bring freedom’ to the neighborhood through his Greater Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). MEPI is supposed to focus on supporting “vital sectors such as education, NGOs, democracy and governance”. But the idea was received with scorn by governments in the region as “democracy imposed from outside”, and little has yet been accomplished.

Then came the Wilsonian rhetoric of the president’s second Inaugural Address – freedom was mentioned too many times to count – followed soon afterward by Condoleeza Rice’s confirmation to be the new Secretary of State.

Then, as if to leave no doubt about who has the power, Mr. Mubarak, the ‘new democrat’, jailed Ayman Nour, the leader of the “Tomorrow” opposition political party. At which point Secretary Rice abruptly cancelled her trip to Egypt. The diplomats in the State Department insisted it had nothing to do with Mr. Nour, but policy watchers saw Dr. Rice’s action as the proverbial ‘stick in the eye’ of Mr. Mubarak.

It would be too easy – and not at all Middle Eastern – to see all these factors coming together logically in some kind of ‘perfect storm’. But, knowing how things work in this part of the world – and knowing the glacial pace of the USAID grant-making process -- the NGO competition would have to have been in the pipeline for some time.

So perhaps there is a more plausible assessment of how these mini-grants emerged from the delicate donor minuet the U.S. has always done with Egypt. It is that the Americans, buoyed by the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, finally summoned up the confidence to use the leverage that comes from having shelled out billions in aid. Whether it took a war to build such confidence is arguable; giving billions gives you leverage without wars. What was missing was the will to use that leverage.

The democracy-oriented grants, however welcome, are not without irony. One of them goes to the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, whose founder, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibhrahim, was jailed by Mubarak on patently trumped-up charges in 2001 and spent a year behind bars before he was exonerated in his second high profile trial in 2003. More irony: The program for which the Khaldun Center won its USAID grant is eerily similar to the one for which its founder was jailed.

Another stick in the eye?

Perhaps, but that’s not really important. What’s important is that that these grants have happened. And in the Middle East, sometimes it’s best not to try to figure out why things happen, or why they happen when they happen. Maybe we need to be satisfied with ‘Inshallah’ – if God wills it.

Since these grants are a ‘first’, they can hardly been called a trend. But who knows? Six little NGOs have been empowered to do important and potentially seminal work. Americans, unlike Egyptians, know the power of NGOs. These grants might just be the first steps toward teaching the Egyptian people the same lesson.