A raucous debate is raging in Egypt over whether to accept some $200 million in US aid to build up long-suppressed civil society organizations.
Some denounce Washington for “meddling” in internal Egyptian affairs by providing assistance to groups not authorized by the interim authorities in Cairo.
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Several weeks after the February 11 ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated around $65m. to democracy-development programs in Egypt, part of an economic and civil assistance package of $200m.
In April, newly appointed US Ambassador to Cairo Ann Patterson told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a successful democratic transition in Egypt is a strategic necessity for America.
“It matters to our allies, and it will serve as a model for the rest of the Arab world,” Patterson said. “The US has already granted $105m. to various non-governmental organizations to assist with their participation in the political life of the country.”
America’s engagement in fostering democracy has not been lost on all Egyptians.
Middle East Online recently published a report indicating that more than 1,000 Egyptians have lined up at the USAID office in Cairo to apply for grants aimed at bolstering “electoral systems, conducting opinion polling and using its data, tailoring messages to constituencies, volunteer recruitment and organizing, and all the other trappings of a free and fair election, something Egypt has never seen in its modern history.”
Egypt goes to the polls later this year in the first fully democratic elections in over half a century.
But USAID beneficence has already earned Washington a host of influential opponents resentful at what they see as unnecessary intrusion in Egypt’s post-Mubarak future.
The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported on Friday that a number of prominent leftists and Islamist groups joined forces last month to pressure the government of interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to take a stand against foreign funding of political organizations and activities.
Sharaf promptly appointed a fact-finding committee headed by Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel-Aziz El- Guindi to investigate foreign funding of both domestic and international NGOs that have not been authorized by Egypt’s provisional government.
Critics say the move was directly prompted by US efforts to assist civil-society groups kept in the cold during three decades of Mubarak rule.
The panel, working under the auspices of Egypt’s Information Ministry, released a “blacklist” of NGOs and nascent political parties that have asked USAID for funds, and banks were instructed to report all money transfers to NGOs.
The fallout came quickly.
The Wafd Party, a putatively secular liberal party to which Information Minister Osama Heikal belongs, lashed out at Washington, and the Ministry of International Cooperation – which supervises foreign aid to Egypt – made its displeasure known.
“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,” International Cooperation Minister Fayza Aboul- Naga told The Wall Street Journal in June.
“There is a difference between your development partners extending a helping hand and beginning to interfere in what is essentially national affairs,” added ministerial adviser Talaat Abdel- Malek, charging that “USAID in particular crossed that line.”
Still, Aboul-Naga conceded the critical role USAID has played for decades in building up Egypt’s economy.
“There is no question that USAID has played a role in improving Egypt’s infrastructure, especially in the sectors of telecommunications, electricity, health and sanitary drainage,” she said.
Al-Ahram estimated the organization has provided more than $50 billion over the past 40 years in civilian aid alone.
The leaders of fledgling Egyptian civil-society groups are already covering their tracks. “This is not new, and all must know that these organizations 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,” Hafez Abu Saeda of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights told Adl- Ahram.
But others parrot the government’s line that sees Washington’s beneficence as little more than an imperialist ruse.
“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 $250m. per year [from $850m.] and directed most of the money to areas like educational reform and strengthening civil society organizations working in fields of monitoring elections and surveying the situation of human rights,” said Gamal Zahran, a political science professor at Suez Canal University. “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.”