Egypt's democracy groups fear shift in US policy will harm their work

Activists say Barack Obama's decision to cut foreign aid undermines their efforts and plays into the hands of the country's autocratic government.

Money from the US has helped fund seminars on democracy like this one in the Egyptian city of Toukh.
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Late last month at a dusty youth centre in the city of Toukh, about an hour north of Cairo, Nabil Shalaby was teaching women about political participation. Striding confidently in front of a dais of local politicians, Mr Shalaby asked the nearly 60 guests to compile a list of five problems that face their community. "Like what?" asked one woman in the audience. "Like having trouble finding a husband?"

No, not like that, Mr Shalaby said. "General problems, not specific problems." Some laughed, others nodded. Twenty minutes later, each group of six or seven women had their own lists. Mr Shalaby scribbled the most common complaints onto an easel: dirty water, lack of access to public transportation, unemployed youth, poor-quality teachers at local schools and rising food prices. "What we did right now is just like they do in the local councils," he told the hijab-clad assembly. "People in government will now talk about those problems and what we can do."

It is in impoverished cities such as Toukh and with small programmes such as this women's political education seminar where millions of dollars in American pro-democracy funding reach their final destinations. The money had travelled a long way through multiple layers of officialdom: The National Centre for Human Rights paid for the training sessions with a US$13,000 (Dh48,000) grant from Freedom House, an American non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps distribute programming funds on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development (USAid).

But recent policy changes in Washington have put such small projects in jeopardy. Barack Obama's federal budget proposal for the financial year 2010 chopped democracy and governance aid to Egypt and Jordan - the only two Arab states that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel - by about 40 per cent. In Egypt's case, funding has been cut by nearly 75 per cent for pro-democracy NGOs of which the Egyptian government does not approve.

The cuts come at a crucial time. Egyptians are preparing to elect a new parliament this year and will vote in presidential elections in 2011. Past elections in Egypt were marred by irregularities as Egypt's powerful ruling regime manipulated votes and harassed candidates and voters. But the shift in funding priorities reflects a new foreign policy thinking in Washington, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. After nearly a decade in which George W Bush's go-it-alone policy doctrine turned close regional allies into reluctant partners, the Obama administration has decided on a more conciliatory approach toward the autocratic regimes, such as Egypt's, that dominate Middle Eastern politics.

Egypt is a crucial US ally. It receives more American aid than any peacetime country other than Israel. Just as it did last year, the United States will give Egypt a total of $1.55 billion in 2010 - of which US$1.3bn is intended solely for military use. Egypt has benefited from about $50bn in American largesse since 1975. To this day, Egypt remains one of two Arab countries that maintain relations with Israel, and its diplomatic playmaking in the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to be the single most important component of the US-Egyptian relationship.

During his campaign for president, Mr Obama pledged to make the central conflict of the Middle East one of his administration's highest foreign policy priorities. So when Mr Obama moved into the White House, his administration realigned its relationship with the Arab republic, said Ms Dunne. "My conversations with members of the administration have made it clear that they did not want economic assistance to irritate the Egyptian government," said Ms Dunne, who added that the Bush administration's funding for independent Egyptian civil society organisations has long annoyed Egypt's ruling regime. The Obama administration's "priority in dealing with Egypt is how can Egypt help us on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or the Arab-Israeli peace process in general. That's just sort of the prism through which the relationship is viewed."

Under Mr Bush, funding for civil society organisations "doubled and tripled", said Sherif Mansour, a Middle East programme officer for Freedom House. Even organisations that were not registered with Egypt's ministry of social solidarity, which monitors NGOs, still received about $10 million in annual funding from USAid. In a shift that has disappointed pro-democracy activists here, Mr Obama's proposal for the 2010 budget eliminated all USAid funding for unregistered groups and whittled down funding for civil society organisations to a mere $7m from a previous annual sum of $32m, according to a July 2009 report by the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed), an independent Washington-based think tank.

"It's an absolutely wrong decision because the organisations under the ministry of social solidarity are working under certain terms, and the ministry imposes a lot of limits and complications on them," said Safwat Girgis, who runs two NGOs: the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights (ECHR), which is not registered with the ministry of social solidarity, and the Egyptian Organisation for Participation and Sustained Development (EOPSD), which is registered.

Both groups are involved in almost exactly the same sort of advocacy: they hold seminars, workshops, training sessions and conferences to educate the public about human rights and democracy issues. In fact, the difference between the two groups lies in their staffing: activists whom the government has identified as subversive are often allowed to work only for the ECHR. As such, it is Mr Girgis's officially recognised EOPSD that he expects will receive a US$300,000 grant from USAid this month to monitor and report on upcoming elections for Egypt's upper house of parliament, the Shura Council.

But Mr Girgis still worries that his registered organisation's monitoring mission will have to make compromises with Egyptian security forces during the April elections. Mr Obama's "decision is in the best interest of the Egyptian government, not the people nor the civil society organisations", Mr Girgis said. "In my opinion, this is just an exchange of interests between Egypt and the United States."

Yet despite the lofty goals of democracy building, not all USAid-funded projects will be missed. According to a USAid audit of its own democracy and governance activities in Egypt before 2008 that was published in October, "the impact of USAid/Egypt's democracy and governance programmes was unnoticeable in indexes describing the country's democratic environment". While the American aid agency's report blamed the waste of its $50m in democracy and governance activities on Egypt's meddling government, it cited independent civil society organisations as the most effective of all the aid recipients.

The irony that it was just such independent NGO projects that felt the deepest cuts in this year's budget - Mr Obama's 2010 budget reduced USAid's funding for Egyptian democracy and governance programmes to $20m from $50m - was lost on few observers of Egyptian politics. "I see that as a lack of coherence and co-ordination and decisions being made based on other considerations other than which programmes were most effective," said Stephen McInerney, the director of advocacy for the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy.

"I think that it should sort of give pause that if we are making these decisions based on satisfying the Egyptian government and then this audit comes out and says the main reason that all $50 million that has been given per year has not really been working very well was because of a lack of co-operation from the Egyptian government, that shouldn't be a time when you bend more to the Egyptian government by reducing the amount and quit giving money to unregistered groups."

But all may not be lost for Mr Girgis and his activist ilk. Under Mr Obama's budget proposal, unregistered pro-democracy organisations will still receive some funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) - an organisation established by the US state department in 2002 to fund good-governance programming - and the state department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL). Each entity will still be able to distribute $1.3m to unregistered organisations, or about 74 per cent less funding than USAid had offered in years past.

Whether the MEPI and DRL offices will distribute the remaining funds to unregistered NGOs based on the same criteria as USAid remains to be seen. At a press conference at the US Embassy in Cairo this month, Michael Posner, an assistant secretary of state for DRL, said his organisation and MEPI are "looking very closely at ways in which we can be supportive of civil society here" but added that he was "not yet completely conversant" on the DRL's criteria for funding unregistered organisations.

Meanwhile, funding cuts on faraway Capitol Hill mean that the training session for the women of Toukh may be the National Centre for Human Rights's last seminar. Thanks to a law passed last June, Egypt's people's assembly must include at least 64 women out of the total 510 parliamentarians. They will be elected to a legislature that many here see as hamstrung by a lack of real democratic expression.

"Politics in Egypt is only for a small number of people. Why not have everyone know? Why not have all the population know? Because if everyone knew about politics, there would have to be change," said Maged Adeeb, the director of the National Centre for Human Rights. "There would have to be an improvement."