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
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.