• November 29, 2005
  • 7 minutes read

Forum for the (Distant) Future

Forum for the (Distant) Future

Forum for the (Distant) Future
William Fisher

A key pillar of the much-vaunted Middle East democracy initiative of U.S. President George W. Bush has collapsed — brought down by Egypt’s insistence that Arab governments should have more control over grants from a new fund designed to help local pro-democracy groups.

At an international conference this month attended by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and designed to strengthen local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society in the Middle East, Egyptian officials pressed for language stipulating that only organisations legally registered with their governments were covered by the new fund, known as the Foundation for the Future.

Egypt’s law governing NGOs places numerous restrictions on these organisations.

The U.S. characterised the Egyptian position as inappropriate. “In our view and in the view of other delegations, this would have circumscribed NGO activity,” said a senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters traveling with Rice.

The U.S. delegation expressed disappointment with Egypt, which has been a major U.S. ally on key issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Bush administration’s international fight against terrorism. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit reportedly left before the conference ended.

The foundation has commitments of over 50 million dollars to help NGOs, academic institutions and professional associations foster freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The United States has pledged 35 million dollars.

Saudi Arabia and Oman initially supported the Egyptian position, but ultimately all the governments except Egypt agreed to remove language that would have given them control over foreign resources going to groups in their countries.

Several Arab delegates reportedly saw the language of the U.S. draft as another indication that the Bush administration was attempting to impose democracy “from the outside”. Several delegations said that Arabs want more say in crafting criteria for change.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel; it receives roughly 2 billion dollars in U.S. military and economic assistance annually. Since it made peace with Israel more than 25 years ago, it has received tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. It is home to more than half the Arab world’s population.

The conference, known as the Forum for the Future, was held in Bahrain and brought together dozens of nations — including 22 Arab countries and members of the G8 industrialised countries.

The Forum is a joint U.S.-European initiative launched at the 2004 G-8 Summit hosted by President Bush at Sea Island, Georgia. It is a key part of the Bush administration’s Broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Initiative. The first Forum for the Future conference was held last year in Morocco.

Because of the Egyptian action, this year’s Forum ended without an official communiqué. Its planned final declaration would have committed MENA countries to “expand democratic practices, to enlarge participation in political and public life, to foster the roles of civil society, including NGOs, and to widen women’s participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and education fields and to reinforce their rights and status in society while understanding that each country is unique”.

Dr. Omid Safi of Colgate University told IPS, “The failure of the Forum for the Future yet again brings to light the failure of the Bush administration to grasp that the majority of people in the Middle East will continue to judge U.S. actions not by fancy rhetoric and multi-million-dollar initiatives, but rather by the changing of our foreign policy to one that abides by international human rights agreements and empowers self-determination.”

He added: “Until and unless the U.S. administration comes to recognise the work of indigenous activists, NGOs, scholars and religious leaders, we will be seen for what we are: a unilateral bully who will continue to support despotic rulers from Egypt and Israel to Pakistan and beyond.”

“The gap between the rhetoric of spreading democracy and the reality of our policies continues to widen, resulting in less and less credibility for the reform initiatives sponsored/imposed by the United States.”

Chibli Mallat, a prominent Lebanese law professor and currently a candidate for president of that country, played a key role in organising MENA civil society groups to make their needs known to the G8.

“It is disappointing to see declarations going nowhere, when there was so much investment and work with civil society leaders in the countries involved,” he told IPS.

“This only underlines what we described in New York in 2004, and in Rabat earlier this year, that only leaders that resemble the better side of society should be at the helm,” he said. “This is what we call the democratic imperative. The rest, including funding of groups, is secondary and trivial.”

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — the longest-serving leader in his country’s history — was elected in September to his fifth six-year term as president in the first election in which opposition candidates were allowed to compete.

The constitutional amendment allowing the more open polling was hailed by the Bush administration as an important step in Egypt’s journey to democracy, but was widely criticised for placing improper restrictions on opposition freedom to field candidates. Mubarak won 88.6 percent of the votes cast.

Parliamentary elections last week produced widespread protest and charges of police violence and election irregularities. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) retained a large majority of the seats, but the Muslim Brotherhood won 13 parliamentary seats in the second stage of the elections despite a crackdown by authorities, reinforcing its position as the ruling party’s main challenger.

Police arrested more than 500 activists from the officially banned Brotherhood during and ahead of voting. Police and armed gangs blocked polling stations in some Brotherhood strongholds, witnesses said. The Brotherhood has been officially banned since 1954, but many of its members have been elected previously as “independents”. (END/2005)