- ActivitesHuman Rights
- May 31, 2009
- 10 minutes read
Ditching democracy in Egypt?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meeting yesterday with a group of young Egyptian activists at the State Department was a welcome and long-overdue development. These young people somehow managed to elicit the words “democracy” and “human rights” in the same sentence from the Secretary, something that until yesterday she had managed only once before, on Wednesday in a response to a question from reporters when she was meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit.
Of course, in both instances the words were uttered in a rather casual way. She said yesterday, for instance: “Well, we always raise democracy and human rights. It is a core pillar of American foreign policy.” Not exactly a ringing policy defense.
In fact, over the course of the past few months there have been a number of occasions that have caused democracy and human rights activists to wince. First, there was Clinton’s confirmation testimony in which she made clear that U.S. foreign policy under an Obama administration would center on the so-called three “Ds”: diplomacy, development, defense. For many there was a fourth obvious D missing: democracy. Next, there was the conscious downplaying of human rights by the Secretary during her travels to China, Egypt and elsewhere. Then there was the State Department’s decision to move the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor out of the main State Department headquarters after 32 years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the administration has failed, until now, to find anyone willing to head that bureau.
So, why is this? The first reason is obvious and understandable. The Obama administration wanted to distance itself from the tone and perceived baggage of the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda.” The rhetoric did need to be toned down perhaps, but it did not need to be thrown out altogether. A well-placed source at the State Department recently told me that in his bureau, they were no longer to use the words “freedom and democracy” in speeches. “Those are Bush words,” he was told. No. They are not. They are American words as Secretary Clinton herself makes clear.
The second and more important reason seems to be that this administration believes democracy and development are two entirely different things. When asked at her press availability yesterday about the democratic progress Egypt has made, Secretary Clinton avoided the question by talking instead about what the United States was doing and would do with development assistance in Egypt. Specifically she said: “We are very committed to doing what we can to promote economic opportunity inside Egypt. We consider that a key part of our providing assistance to Egypt.” She then added the following breathtaking sentence: “We’ve spent, as you know, many billions of dollars over the last years promoting NGOs, promoting democracy, good governance, rule of law. And I want to stress economic opportunity because out of economic opportunity comes confidence, comes a recognition that people can chart their own future.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, a variation of this line of argument was first advanced in print yesterday by Steven Cook for the June 1 issue of Newsweek. In his article, he argues for eliminating all democracy promotion programs in Egypt (and by extension all authoritarian regimes) and reprogramming them into agriculture, pre- and post-natal health and disease prevention programs. Doing so, he writes, would better win hearts and minds and, more importantly, “reduce tensions between Washington and Cairo.” (And Beijing, Minsk, Rangoon, Harare, etc., I suppose.) This is pretty disappointing stuff from the drafter of the Council of Foreign Relations task force report, “In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How.”
What Secretary Clinton—and Steven—seem to be saying is, “Look, the Bush administration spent a boatload on promoting democracy and look where that got us; let’s spend more on economic development. At least we can make some folks happy.” The trouble with this is that it is both factually incorrect and kowtows to the regime-inspired idea that first you help us develop economically and then, if it suits us, we can think about developing institutions of accountability (aka democratic institutions) later.
The fact is the United States has spent many billions of dollars in Egypt on arms, commodities, and Egypt-defined “development” but not on democracy and NGOs. During my time at the State Department we had to wrestle the Egyptian government (and our own!) to the mat to squeeze out a few million dollars to support international organizations like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House, among others. The direct grants to local non-governmental organizations were even smaller. Most were below $100,000. Although I don’t have the time now to sum up all that was spent by the Bush administration on non-Egyptian-government approved democracy programs in Egypt, I’d make an educated guess that the entire sum wouldn’t amount to more than $100 million over the seven fiscal years from 2002 to 2008. The entire budget for the Middle East Partnership Initiative during those years averaged only $70 million per year—and that was for the entire region from Morocco to Iran.
But the statement is wrong in another way as well. One of the key innovations of the Bush administration—which created a lot of friction, I can assure you—was to stop working with the Egyptian government on their self-described development programs and instead do something that would really impact the economy: the reform of the financial sector. Working with a talented group of new ministers—not a true democrat among them—we found innovative ways of using “development assistance” to incentivize reforms in the financial sector. In a negotiated Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt, the government committed to, among other things, strong and independent central bank management, developing a functioning government securities market, and implementing a comprehensive program to reform the Egyptian banking sector that included privatization. Against benchmarks in the MOU, the Bush administration committed close to $700 million with an additional $2.3 billion in loan guarantees, also tied to performance benchmarks. The results, as the IMF tells us, have been remarkable. Egypt has been growing at an average annual rate of between 5 and 7 percent per year. This is real “development.”
The main point to make here is that actually doing something important required changing the way things were done. The United States had to risk changing the way it spoke about our economic support funds to Egypt. Egypt treated these funds as theirs; they earned them. They made peace with Israel, the argument went, and deserved this annuity in perpetuity for their amazing sacrifice to the United States. The Bush administration looked at what the funds were producing for the Egyptians and for us, and concluded that they needed to be reviewed and reshaped, whatever the original intent of the funding some 30 years ago. Moving economic and political reform together at the same time was crucial in this.
To take a step backwards now is a mistake, but the Obama administration is taking it. Already they have reversed the hard-fought agreement not to allow Egypt to veto democracy programs and have agreed that from now on all programs will be negotiated with the Egyptian government as part of the bilateral agreement. This sends exactly the wrong signal, and soon other governments in the region will be demanding the same sort of agreement. Moreover, the Egypt desk officer at State calmly explains that this administration is only correcting what the Bush administration screwed up. This is Egyptian money, the explanation goes, and we have to eliminate the cause of the friction in the relationship. Some people at USAID tell me that it is all part and parcel of a broader effort to separate democracy assistance more broadly from what USAID does.
Ironically—and sadly—the program that brought in the activists to meet Secretary Clinton yesterday is an early casualty of this leap backwards. Freedom House’s “New Generation” program has seen its project de-funded since the agreement went into force. They had had a three-year agreement with USAID that was terminated only one year into the agreement after the Egyptian government objected to it. It was good the Secretary met with the young people now; she won’t be able to do so next year.
Perhaps we’ll win more hearts and minds with pre- and post-natal care—if anyone knows we’re providing it—but returning to the status quo ante, eliminating core democracy programs, toning down rhetoric to the point that it is seen as a green light to regimes to repress their people, all guarantee we’ll lose some as well. A recent publication by the Project on Middle East Democracy, “Looking Forward: An Integrated Strategy for Supporting Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt,” proposes a much more thoughtful way forward. The Obama administration would be wise to consider many of its sensible recommendations. In the meantime, as these young Egyptian men and women, bloggers, journalists and activists head for home tomorrow, they leave confused about what the United States stands for. This shouldn’t be. Let’s hope that their meeting with Secretary Clinton was for more than just show. Their young lives will depend on it.