Don't Give up on Egypt

Bush's push for democracy in the Arab world's most populous country showed glimmers of success. So why does Obama seem ready to give up on it now?

CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images Caveat lector: Not long after Condi Rice spoke in Cairo, the United States seemed to give up on promoting democracy in Egypt.

As U.S. President Barack Obama warms up for his highly anticipated speech in Cairo, in which he will no doubt have things to say about the Middle East's democratic deficits, few have noticed that his administration has drastically scaled back, with little explanation or advance warning, its financial support for Egyptian activists fighting for political reform.

On the whole, Obama has renewed, even expanded, American assistance for democracy in the region. But Egypt, long a regional political and cultural leader, stands out as a prominent -- and very important -- exception to this broader trend. During the congressional appropriations process in March, U.S. democracy and governance funding in Egypt was quietly slashed by 60 percent -- a cut that was repeated just last week in the Obama administration's most recent budget request for 2010.

U.S. support for democracy activists goes back years. Under the Bush administration, however, U.S. aid to such activists and governance-related goals increased significantly. By 2004, the United States was shelling out $37 million annually -- or about 15 percent of what it spends each day in Iraq -- and such funding peaked in 2008 at $54.8 million.

Crucially, between 2003 and 2005, the Bush administration paired democracy assistance with pro-democracy diplomacy, linking concessions, including a free trade agreement, to progress on key political rights and freedoms. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2005 remarks at the American University in Cairo placed a high priority on human rights and democratic reform in the country. For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East, she said, and we achieved neither.

For a brief moment, the policy seemed to be showing results. Activists were emboldened and the Egyptian government made some concrete, positive steps on political reform. Unfortunately, as the deteriorating situation in Iraq drew away its attention, and when elections produced results that were not to its liking, the Bush administration essentially gave up on democracy in Egypt in 2006. The aid money remained, but the high-level diplomatic support was gone, and the result was a year of crackdowns on regime opponents and political regression.

Obama has mostly continued the Bush-era programs. In its 2010 budget request, the details of which were released just last week, his administration asked for $545 million for democracy and governance programs across the Middle East -- a 10 percent increase over Fiscal Year 2009. That request also included 60 percent increases for two of Bush's signature aid instruments -- the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

So why has Washington traded in its support for democracy activists and political reform in Egypt?

Some analysts, including the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook in a recent Newsweek International article, pin Egypt's lack of democratic progress on precisely these democracy assistance programs, which he argues are counterproductive. (To Egyptians, many of whom are unaware the U.S. spends anything on democracy programs, this might come as something of a surprise. All along, they were under the impression that Mubarak and his 28-year reign was the chief obstacle to progress, along with annual U.S. financial and military support for his government.) Instead of supporting political reforms, Cook argues, we should invest more in agricultural projects.

There may also be a misconception about exactly how much the United States spends on these programs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to echo that misunderstanding when she told reporters last Thursday that in contrast to U.S. aid for economic opportunity in Egypt, the U.S. government had spent many billions of dollars over the last years promoting NGOs, promoting democracy, good governance, rule of law. In fact, from 2004 to 2009, the United States has spent less than $250 million on such programs. Next to the 7.8 billion Americans pumped into the Egyptian military during that period, that seems a small price to pay to maintain some measure of credibility with America's friends in the country -- who quite justifiably argue that they, too, have a right to elect dynamic new leaders like President Obama.

Neither U.S. assistance nor U.S. diplomacy alone is likely to effectively encourage democratic progress in Egypt. But brought together in an integrated and consistent strategy, the United States can play a positive role in encouraging gradual reform. And as the president gets set to deliver his remarks in Cairo -- words aimed at recasting the American relationship with the people of the Middle East -- that's a worthy and important goal to pursue.

Editor's note: Steven Cook's Newsweek International article inspired heated debate in the Middle East expert community. Read the discussion and Cook's response here.