• July 20, 2011

In Egypt, U.S. Government Seeks a Few Good Democrats

In Egypt, U.S. Government Seeks a Few Good Democrats

The United States was giving away $65 million in grants to build democracy, and Marwan Youness wanted in. But as the portly engineer scrolled through the application on a warm Cairo night, he began to worry.

“Oh, my God, there are a lot of things they need,” Youness told his business partner, Sherif Hossny, who was perched on the edge of his desk. Youness, 38, dragged on his cigarette, leaned toward the laptop and ran through the six pages of questions.

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.Some items were simple: project name, applicant, telephone number.

Then came: “Explain why the program is necessary.”

Youness and Hossny paused. That question went to the heart of who they were — and, ultimately, why it could be so difficult for the United States to spend $65 million on democracy in Egypt.

Just a year ago, Hossny was pitching ads to improve the image of the ruling National Democratic Party, a hated machine that stifled democracy. Youness taught classes on politics for party youths.

Now they were on the side of the revolution that had destroyed the ruling party. And they were proposing to make voter-education ads for free elections.

They brainstormed for days. Finally, Hossny, 35, typed: “This is our opportunity to raise awareness and understanding and change perception about what a transparent democratic society can do for people.”

Then came the question of how much money they wanted. They calculated: personnel, a studio, video equipment. The total: $420,000.

Just before 5 p.m. May 29, Hossny hit “send.”

Now the newly minted revolutionaries would have to wait, as the U.S. government decided whether they were the right people to help build democracy in Egypt.

High stakes for Washington

Their form zipped into computers in a cavernous glass-and-granite building in a southern Cairo suburb. Here, in fluorescent-lighted offices, a handful of Americans and Egyptians wearing lanyards stamped “U.S. Agency for International Development” sorted through scores of applications.

Three months earlier, the U.S. government had tripled pro-democracy aid to Egypt, to $65 million. Already, a chunk of it had been assigned: more than $30 million to two veteran U.S. nonprofit organizations that train budding politicians; about $4.5 million to a State Department program for grass-roots groups; millions for election infrastructure.

But in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, USAID wanted to go beyond the usual grantees.

The stakes were high: For 30 years, the U.S. government had relied on President Hosni Mubarak to help maintain peace in the Middle East and fight terrorism. “Our impression is that the Egyptian government is stable,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Jan. 25.

Within weeks, Mubarak’s reign was over and the U.S. government was repositioning itself. “The United States stands ready to help in every way possible to translate what happened in Tahrir Square into the new reality for Egypt,” Clinton said March 16.

Of particular concern was the looming electoral battle between politically inexperienced reformers and the Muslim Brotherhood, the once-banned Islamist movement that has become Egypt’s most organized political force.