The Cairo Conundrum
Egypt is the linchpin to America’s Middle East policy—a policy that must make interests reinforce ideals, rather than conflict with them.
In his June 4, 2009 speech at Cairo University, President Barack Obama dramatically raised expectations for U.S. policy in the Middle East, among Americans and Muslims both. “Whatever we think of the past,” Obama said, “We must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.” It was a historic address, as the President threatened to do precisely what many progressives had long hoped for: reorient American foreign policy away from the sometimes tragic mistakes of the past, whether the Iraq war or even the still-resonant 1953 coup in Iran. And it seemed only natural that Egypt, a land of great potential but deep social and political problems, would be Obama’s testing ground.
In Egypt and across the region, Americans reported receiving smiles and salutes, something that has a whiff of fantasy to those of us who lived in the Middle East during the Bush era. A range of politicians and activists from across the region lauded the speech. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, praised Obama for offering “a new vision of rapprochement,” while Jordanian analyst Fahd al-Khaytan spoke of a “historic change in U.S. political discourse.” Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel Committee that awarded the Peace Prize to Obama, has cited the President’s Cairo address as a major factor in the committee’s decision.
In the months since, however, the meaning of the address has become clouded by the realities of a region known for its stubborn resistance to change. With Afghanistan, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sucking most of Washington’s limited attention, Egypt has faded into the background.
But Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world and still its pre-eminent cultural and intellectual center, is a bellwether for the region. American policy toward Cairo, its closest Arab ally and, since 1979, its second-largest recipient of foreign aid, has been in need of a facelift for some time. U.S.-Egypt relations have long been governed by an understanding that, in return for supporting American interests in the region, Washington would turn a blind eye to Egypt’s authoritarian practices. This bargain–interests in exchange for ideals–remained firm until the Bush Administration began to realize, in the aftermath of September 11, that the status quo was not as stable as originally thought. Support of Arab autocracies had boomeranged, producing a Middle East consumed by political violence and extremism. In her own Cairo speech, four years before Obama’s, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
In 2005, under the Bush Administration’s “freedom agenda,” Cairo experienced a short-lived “springtime” for reformers. It did not last long. The United States reversed course after Islamist parties did surprisingly well in elections across the region. Bush had memorably declared that “our vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” Yet in practice, his actions suggested the opposite. With a deteriorating situation in Iraq and the specter of a nuclear Iran, ensuring the cooperation of the Egyptian regime took precedence over other concerns.
Just as it did under the previous administration, America’s relationship with Egypt both captures and magnifies the myriad contradictions of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It brings to a head the inescapable tensions that have long undermined its credibility in the region, tensions between ideals and interests, between America’s desire for democracy and its need for stability. Bringing coherence to that relationship is critical to promoting democracy to the Middle East.
Budgets Speak Louder than Words
In an effort to disassociate themselves from the Iraq war and the neoconservatism from which it sprung, progressives have also distanced themselves from democracy promotion in the Middle East. This has extended to the highest rungs of Democratic policymaking and most clearly been on display in Obama’s evolving policies toward Egypt. As early as March, the Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shukri happily noted that relations with the United States were improving because Washington was dropping its demands “for human rights, democracy, and religious and general freedoms.” Meanwhile, in her first trip to Cairo the same month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Egyptians that “conditionality is not our policy.”
More striking, however, are the drastic cuts in democracy assistance to Egypt contained in the Obama Administration’s 2010 budget request. The decrease of 60 percent (from $54 million to $20 million) from Bush’s final request is especially jarring in a year when democracy aid shot up for countries like Morocco and Yemen. As it turns out, Egypt, with a population of more than 80 million, received less democracy assistance than either the West Bank and Gaza or Lebanon, each with about 4 million people. According to the Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual budget analysis, only about 1 percent of total bilateral assistance to Egypt was earmarked for democracy and governance, and a sizable portion of even that 1 percent went to either GONGOs–government organized non-governmental organizations–or the Egyptian government itself.
Under the Obama Administration’s direction, the 2009 omnibus appropriations act included specific language limiting the amount of economic assistance that could be used for democracy and governance, the first time that such language has ever been used in legislation. Jordan is the only other Arab country to suffer significant cuts in democracy assistance. Overall funding was slashed by 23 percent, while funding for civil society fell 44 percent and 36 percent for good governance programs. On the other hand, non-democracy-related assistance to Jordan, through the Millennium Challenge Corporation–along with the Middle East Partnership Initiative, one of two Bush-era funding initiatives that the Obama Administration, to its credit, continues to support–is set to increase dramatically. Only democratic or democratizing countries are supposed to be eligible; Jordan, however, has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years, and its most recent parliamentary elections, held in November 2007, were its least free and fair since the resumption of parliamentary life in 1989.
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