The contradictions of USAID in Egypt

This piece was first published at Open Democracy.

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Prior to the Egyptian revolution, the US democracy-promotion strategy helped consolidate the power of an authoritarian regime and today, the course adopted by its funding bodies is facilitating the marginalization of alternative social forces.

Reports of America’s chaotic and partisan democracy-promotion strategies in Egypt met with derision this weekend as commentators pointed to the contradiction between high-minded US rhetoric and the reality of its efforts on the ground. Yet this should come as no surprise. In the decades prior to Egypt’s January revolution, the contradictory US democracy-promotion strategy helped consolidate the power of an authoritarian regime and today, the course adopted by its funding bodies is facilitating the marginalization of social forces that do not sing from the same hymn sheet of ‘democracy-speak’.

In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, American officials were keen to emphasise the role that US funding had played in empowering key revolutionary groups. Whilst democracy-promotion funds undoubtedly played a role in training a sizeable number of activists, it would be crass to draw too strong a line of causality between the training programmes and what happened next. During this period, the fact that the Bush and Obama administrations had in fact offered tacit and active support for an institutional reality at odds with the mission statements of democracy-promotion NGOs, has exposed the fact that this remained very much a secondary concern for American political elites. In the years leading up to the January revolution, opposition movements were repeatedly thwarted by pseudodemocratic institutions that satisfied international demands for democratic structures without fundamentally altering the character of the political order. Instead of offering direct encouragement, the sporadic nature of American diplomatic pressure would allow Mubarak to turn US funding and rhetoric to his own advantage, marginalizing Islamist opposition and constructing systems that were neither democratic nor sustainable.

After 2005, a shift towards funding civil society as a counterweight to autocratic political structures would in fact exacerbate this trend further. The good intentions were there: aid would be allocated to projects that increased ‘political openness and democratic processes, create new economic opportunities, enhance access to and quality of education systems, and/or empower women.’ Yet honourable intentions gave rise to unintended consequences, and this funding strategy led to the weakening of the very organisations that could have represented an avenue for organised dissent. Instead of representing a cogent political challenge to Mubarak’s regime, the NGOs that emerged through these efforts came to exist in a different sphere to the government, focusing on the social rather than the strictly political. By encouraging these groups to fill the gap left by the government’s failure to offer effective welfare provisions, support for civil society initiatives played directly into Mubarak’s hands. Ultimately, this strategy redirected potential channels of resistance towards activities that allowed the autocrat to consolidate power without providing the sort of services required by a social contract.

This weekend’s revelations show that the strategic vision underpinning the latest round of US democracy-promotion efforts remains confused and counterproductive. In backing ‘winners’, US democracy funding sends out a message that it will support the Egyptian political process, but only along a path that is ideologically palatable to a western audience.

This is problematic for two reasons: firstly, it risks discrediting the work of the organisations it funds. Proof that contrary to its mission and its statementsIRI – one of the key financial beneficiaries – was engaged in biased political activity will reinforce the notion that democracy-promotion funding is simply another tool with which to further American strategic interests, rather than a contribution to building a more free and democratic Egypt in line with the wishes of its people. This leaves recipients open to accusations of foreign interference, striking a chord with fears the of the broader Egyptian population at a time of heightened nationalism. Such claims are today being played out across the nation’s television screens as 43 civil society workers are tried for illegally operating political, campaign and election training programmes financed with US and other foreign money.

Secondly, the highly specific process through which organisations must apply for funding has narrowed the field of ‘suitable’ candidates, strengthening long-established international organisations at the expense of smaller domestic groups. With an organizational advantage that comes from decades of experience in writing similar grants, it is organisations such as IRI and NDI that benefit from the funding that was originally conceived as a boost for the struggling liberal political and civil society organisations with which American funding bodies would wish to publicly align themselves. The fact that these groups remain the most disadvantaged in terms of institutional representation reveals the failure of US democracy-promotion funding to make an effective impact in the ideologically ‘suitable’ circles that its funding strategy has earmarked.

The muddled reality of US democracy-promotion efforts in Egypt reveals that little has changed in the wake of the January revolution. Prior to the fall of Mubarak, these had helped strengthen the very authoritarian structures that the funding was supposed to challenge. Today, the reality of American rhetoric about a desire to support groups that suffered under Mubarak is in fact undercutting the political legitimacy of these groups. Of course, the elephant in the room here is the continued US commitment to Egyptian military funding. This annual aid package of $1.3 billion continues to empower a junta that has consistently interfered with the work of liberal groups that democracy-promotion funding bodies are simultaneously supporting. Whilst the American government continues to pursue its strategic interests through such inconsistent funding strategies, it can only weaken its credibility as arbiter of democracy on the Egyptian stage.

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