Empowered by the superpower

Waleed Khalil Rasromani
10 Min Read

Grass-root organizations supported by the U.S. government review their progress

ALEXANDRIA: About 30 members of NGOs and political movements from throughout the region gathered in Egypt this week to exchange their experiences and attend seminars arranged by the American government s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) on issues relevant to civil societies

All participants belong to organizations that have made use of MEPI s small grants program.

The small grants are one of MEPI s methods of supporting progress on four fronts: economics, democracy, education and women.

Funds of up to $25,000 are provided to support community-level activities.

We created a program of technical assistance to go directly to reformers, the key point being that what we are doing is responding to what they want to do; we don t have a preset vision of what programs must be done in this region, says Peter Mulrean, MEPI s regional director for North Africa and Lebanon.

The Egyptian Cognitive Child Association (ECC) is an example of an organization that benefited from the program.

We found that students that graduate from secondary school mostly fail in university and that they cannot adapt to university life and its method of study, says ECC Director Ma azuza Ebeid Rizk. We also found that those who graduate from the educational system, even from universities, do not know how to work.

Rizk explains that this is the result of an environment of fostering failure amongst youth, where mothers and teachers spoon-feed children. As a result, children are effectively taught that they cannot rely on themselves.

There is also the phenomena of private lessons, where the teacher becomes the child s attendant to such an extent that [the child] cannot write without a teacher being present, says Rizk.

With the support of funds from MEPI, ECC carried out an awareness campaign directed at parents to warn them of the dangers of private lessons and of an overbearing upbringing. The association also held training sessions for parents to provide them with methods to assist their children in designing an independent study plan and schedule.

The Future Business Women Association in Kafr El-Sheikh is another organization supported by small grants from MEPI.

The association s objective is to create new businesswomen in the area, says Hala Fawzy Abul Saad, the association s chairperson. This was the general goal, but since we are in a rural area of Egypt it was very difficult for us to work with this general goal in smaller phased objectives. We had to [begin with] awareness work for women and to change society itself in terms of education, social issues and economics.

The association embarked on a project to address fundamental impediments to the social engagement of women in Kafr El-Sheikh and created the Center for the Support of Women s Rights with funds from MEPI.

The project had three main goals, explains Abul Saad. The first goal was to produce 2,800 national identity numbers for women. The second goal was to register 3,000 women in electoral lists. The third goal was the education of girls, women and housewives of their social and political rights.

Rizk and Abul Saad both faced resistance from their respective communities due to the perceived affiliation with the United States.

We didn t face any issues in dealing with MEPI, but we had difficulties with society itself, because it is an [American] organization, says Abul Saad. But I think we overcame this issue by our approach … From the beginning of the project we convinced the governor of Kafr El-Sheikh of [the benefit of] the project and got his support. ECC eventually overcame this obstacle through awareness and trust.

The Egyptian street is reluctant and we face rejection or fear when the existence of foreign and especially American funding is mentioned, says Atef Nabih, who heads the ECC project funded by MEPI.

We clarified our point of view, what we do and the role of each person in the project, and we were able to win over government authorities through the project, adds Rizk.

David Mulenex of MEPI s strategy and planning office in Washington concedes that many in the region are suspicious of U.S. intentions and are concerned that the U.S. wants to enforce a particular political model on Arab governments.

Nothing is further from the truth but this suspicion was out there, says Mulenex. From the beginning, it s always been a policy of the U.S. government, and MEPI, as a programmatic arm of that policy, has always been committed [to it], to support reform in the Arab region and not to define in any predetermined way what that reform should look like.

MEPI was launched by the U.S. government in 2002 as part of the shift in its foreign policy for the Middle East subsequent to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

The U.S. made a significant decision to shift its policy toward the Middle East and North Africa based on a realization that our previous support for stability had come at the expense of basic freedoms and supporting the views and the values for the people of the region that we were supporting throughout the rest of the world, says Mulrean.

The U.S. government therefore ended what Mulrean describes as the Middle East exception in its foreign policy and pursued a two-track approach to encourage political change in the region. The first track was diplomatic and promoted political reform and the adoption of legislation favorable to free markets.

The other track was to provide direct, concrete support to reformers in the region, to the people who were trying to create a better future for their countries, and that s where MEPI came in, says Mulrean.

The initiative supports civil society to reinvigorate the exercise of political rights that had stagnated for many years.

One of the things that happened throughout the Middle East for a number of years is that government that had laws in place that had democratic procedures as a part of those laws, says Mulenex. The laws didn t vanish but the habit of exercising rights under the law vanished, and so to put that back in place through these [civil society] groups is very important.

The initiative has committed $293 million to date to projects throughout the region.

The vast majority of the money has gone to non-governmental organizations, says Mulrean. MEPI is designed to work primarily with reformers. We only do a small amount of our work directly with governments.

Its funding in Egypt is modest in comparison with other countries because of the substantial bilateral assistance already provided to the country through $1.2 billion of military assistance and $495 million of grants managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Compared to a number of other countries, we have not done that many programs in Egypt in part because Egypt has a huge bilateral assistance program through USAID and we work very closely with our colleagues at USAID, says Mulrean.

The shift in U.S. foreign policy is ultimately a reaction to the threat of terrorism, which is in turn fueled by religious extremism and political dissatisfaction. The U.S. government is gambling that, by pushing for political change through programs such as MEPI, its new policy increase stability in the region in the long-term and thereby further its own interests.

Democracies don t go to war with each other, says Mulrean. People who believe that they have a say in their future, who have the potential to make a better life for themselves [and] for their children invest themselves in their society and in their future and they don t pursue activities against their society or more extremist activities.

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