US aid to Egypt's civil society: a need, a blessing and a curse

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 5 Aug 2011

Washington's decision to give millions of dollars to civil society organisations in Egypt has sparked heated controversy in political circles

Sharaf Obama
Egypt and the United States face disagreements on aid provided to civil society organizations (Photo: Reuters)

Nearly six months after Hosni Mubarak was toppled as president, Egypt is still a long way from achieving democracy.

From the early days of the January 25 Revolution, the United States showed a keen interest in playing a large role in shaping the country’s transition towards democracy.

Just a few weeks after Mubarak was ousted, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) directed some $65 million towards "democratic development” programmes in Egypt, out of total economic and civil assistance estimated at around $200 million in 2010/2011.

In a statement before the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on 21 April, the newly-appointed US Ambassador to Egypt Ann Patterson said a successful democratic transition in Egypt matters to the United States strategically: "It matters to our allies; and it will serve as a model for the rest of the Arab world."

Patterson disclosed that “the US has already granted $105 million to various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to assist with their participation in the political life of the country.”

Not only has USAID decided to allocate millions of dollars to democratic development programmes, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to threaten a few days ago to have President Barack Obama veto a Republican bill aimed at cutting aid to Egypt in the event that Islamists dominate the new parliament.

According to a Middle East Online study on US aid in Egypt, more than one thousand Egyptians have lined up to submit proposals at USAID’s Cairo office to obtain grants allocated to democratic transition programmes. “This is a huge success in spite of sharp criticism that has been leveled at US funding of political activities since Mubarak was ousted from power,” one USAID official in Cairo said.

The study also showed that newly established political parties and several NGOs are approaching the three largest American democracy and governance programmers: the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) on a daily basis “to join their training programmes on electoral systems, conducting opinion polling and using its data, tailoring messages to constituencies, volunteer recruitment and organising, and all the other trappings of a free and fair election, something Egypt has never seen in its modern history.”

America’s deep interest in playing a role in Egypt’s transition towards democracy, however, has triggered a spate of adverse effects on several fronts.

Several political activists — especially leftists and Islamists — teamed up to exert pressure on the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to stand against foreign funding of political entities and activities.

On 12 July, the government of Sharaf was up in arms, announcing the formation of a fact-finding committee headed by Minister of Justice Mohamed Abdel-Aziz El-Guindi to investigate foreign funding for unlicensed local and international NGOs, a clear response directed at US democracy and governance programmes.

One of the main objectives of the fact-finding committee is formulate a blacklist of NGOs and newly-established political parties that submitted proposals for financial assistance from USAID in Cairo. Newly-appointed Minister of Information Osama Heikal said “the blacklist will be announced in a few days.”

Two weeks later, the banks are asked to report all money transfers of NGOs.

Joining forces, the traditionally liberal Wafd Party — to which Heikal belongs — launched a scathing attack on the United States, accusing it of doing its best to meddle in domestic politics and shape the transition towards democracy in its own interests.

The Ministry of International Cooperation, which oversees foreign aid to Egypt, has also made its dissatisfaction with USAID known.

In June, Minister of International Cooperation and Planning Fayza Aboul-Naga gave an interview to the New York-based The Wall Street Journal excoriating democracy and governance programming. "I am not sure at this stage we still need somebody to tell us what is or is not good for us — or worse, to force it on us," she said.

Aboul-Naga’s senior advisor, Talaat Abdel-Malek, also expressed frustration with USAID programmes. In his words, “There is a difference between your development partners extending a helping hand and beginning to interfere in what is essentially national affairs.”

He charged that “USAID in particular crossed that line” by passing out funding to NGOs that are not licensed by the government.

Despite the increasingly aggressive attitude to the American funding of political activities in the post-Mubarak era, few expect open confrontation between the Egyptian government and USAID. In a press interview in Washington last week ago, Ambassador Patterson said that she does not intend to impose anything on the Egyptian government.

She indicated, however, that “all must know that building a strong civil society is a major cornerstone in achieving the country’s transition towards democracy.”

The Egyptian government itself notes that USAID has played an active role in rebuilding the Egyptian economy over more than 30 years.

Aboul-Naga told The Wall Street Journal that “there is no question that USAID has played a [gigantic] role in improving Egypt’s infrastructure, especially in the sectors of telecommunications, electricity, health and sanitary drainage.”

Official figures show that USAID has offered Egypt more than $50 billion in civil assistance over 40 years.

Hafez Abu Saeda, chairman of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), told Ahram Online that EOHR has never received money from USAID.

“Our funding depends on local and foreign sources, none of which belongs to the United States,” said Abu Saeda. He is not, however, against receiving money from USAID. “Civil society organisations that accept money from USAID should be clear about its objectives and in what way they will spend the money,” he said.

Abu Saeda also believes that foreign funding for civil society organisations helped a lot in alerting the attention of the outside world to rampant election fraud in Egypt during the Mubarak era. “It also spotlighted torture practices and human rights violations during the Mubarak era,” he added.

Abu Saeda believes there is an organised campaign aimed at discrediting local civil society organisations.

“This is not new, and all must know that these organisations paid a heavy price during the Mubarak era in the form of detentions and smear campaigns because of their role in exposing political corruption and repressive policies,” he said.

By contrast, Gamal Zahran, a political science professor at Suez Canal University, believes that “during the second term of former US president George W Bush, USAID made a big shift in its funding priorities in Egypt. They decided to cut civil funding to almost $250 million per year (from $850 million in the 1990s) and directed most of the money to areas like educational reform and strengthening civil society organisations working in fields of monitoring elections and surveying the situation of human rights.”

Zahran charges that US offers of money to NGOs are not for nothing.

“American officials believe that these NGOs could be a good US force, to be a thorn in the side of governments, and help serve American strategic interests in Egypt,” said Zahran. He added that “many of the movements that rose against Mubarak received money from the US," which allows Hillary Clinton significant power, if only to ensure that the money keeps flowing.

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