Ditching or discussing democracy in Egypt?

Ditching or discussing democracy in Egypt?

The audience for President Obama’s Cairo speech will include participants or invitees from across the range of Egypt’s political actors, the White House has confirmed. The administration has not yet confirmed whether the president will meet separately with dissidents or opposition political but has suggested that “there will be additional opportunity to engage key actors in civil society in Egypt, in addition to obviously engaging our friends in the Egyptian government.”

In his meetings with President Hosni Mubarak, President Obama “will not hesitate to bring up some of the important civil society issues, democracy issues“, including “freedom and opportunity, prosperity”, that he has raised with other leaders.

Obama told the BBC that he hopes to deliver the message “that democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity”.

But is the Obama administration ditching democracy in Egypt? That’s the issue being debated over at the must-read Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog.

J. Scott Carpenter got the ball rolling by taking Steven Cook to task for this claim that the U.S. is throwing good money after bad by promoting democracy instead of development. During his stint at the State Department under the Bush administration, he notes, the entire budget for the Middle East Partnership Initiative averaged only $70 million a year for the entire region from Morocco to Iran.

“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,” he recalls.

He recommends the Project on Middle East Democracy’s new report – “Looking Forward: An Integrated Strategy for Supporting Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt“. The report calls for a change in the tone of public rhetoric, an inter-agency strategic dialogue, positive conditionality to encourage reform, direct engagement with opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood; and greater assistance for governance and democracy assistance programs.

The Obama administration needs to stop reacting to the Bush administration and develop its own approach to democracy assistance, Michele Dunne agrees. “Whether or not it is justified, many Arabs hold the United States at least indirectly responsible for their inability to choose their governments and express themselves freely,” writes Dunne, editor of the indispensable Arab Reform Bulletin.

Under the rubric of a new strategic dialogue, the U.S. should increase support for democracy programs with a proven record of “building civil society from the ground up“, the POMED report concludes, but “keep the democratization agenda as a key component of the overall relationship, without prioritizing it to the degree that other strategic interests are neglected.”

But the administration is formulating such a strategic dialogue, writes Tamara Wittes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent words and this week’s speech in Cairo point to a change in course and signal that democratization is not off the table. “Democracy promotion will only be effective and sustainable if it is integrated into the broader framework of bilateral relations, and this is what a successful strategic dialogue will do,” she asserts.

Wittes highlights Cook’s “misleading” and factually incorrect claims about levels of democracy assistance funding, refuting his claims that democracy assistance comes at the expense of development.

For his part, the unrepentant Cook – formerly a proponent of democratic reform in the Arab world – insists that the empirical evidence suggests that democracy assistance programs have made little demonstrable difference to democracy and governance in the region. He claims a “paradigmatic disconnect between those of us engaged in policy debates and those who actually manage and implement democracy and good governance programs” and cites in support the views of the development community that  programs on parliamentary strengthening, civil society building, and rule of law have proven ineffectual.


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