CAIRO: Foreign donors must make aid to Egypt conditional on the government making human rights and democratic change concessions, an Egyptian NGO said Wednesday.
“Financial assistance will be meaningless if it is not accompanied by political and diplomatic engagement,” Moataz El-Fegeiry, executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) said. “We need smart political engagement combining incentives for our government and benchmarking,” El-Fegeiry continued.
The executive director was speaking during a joint seminar titled “American Foreign Policy and Human Rights Issues”. Convened by CIHRS, Heinrich Boll Stiftung and the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) the event was held to launch the Arabic version of POMED’s report on the budget request submitted by President Barack Obama to the US Congress for financial year 2011, and its implications for US foreign policy in the Arab region.
The Obama administration has asked for $1.56 billion in aid for Egypt, of which $1.3 billion is for the military and $25 million for democracy and governance, the report says. These figures, the report says, reflect a broader tend in the region of aid for regional militaries dominating US assistance — “despite the Obama administration’s stated intention to support ‘broader engagement’ with Middle Eastern countries.”
“Leaving aside Iraq, the FY11 budget requests $5.1 billion for military assistance to the Middle East but only $1.3 billion for non-military assistance and initiatives, of which $225.9 million is designated to support democracy and governance,” the report reads.
“If the US intends to credibly convey support for the region’s people and not merely its authoritarian governments, the vast power spending in the region must be reconsidered,” it continues.
Speaking during the seminar, POMED report author Stephen McInerney noted that “Egypt more than any other country in the region has seen a significant cut made by the Obama administration and Congress in funding for economic assistance as a whole and for democracy and governance in particular.”
While McInerney acknowledged that these cuts have been “broadly criticized,” he stressed that “higher numbers do not always result in more effective programming.”
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) noted that EIPR and other NGOs supported a reduction in US aid overspending around the time of the 2005 elections because NGOs were being created to absorb these funds. McInerney responded by saying that “it is clear that there has been inefficiency and funds directed to inefficient organizations” but added that there is “no evidence” that the cut in spending is motivated by the desire for more efficient funding.
Two controversial developments in US funding policy to Egypt are of particular concern to civil society, POMED and CIHRS say.
In 2009 the Obama administration decided to provide bilateral funding only to Egyptian organizations registered and approved by the Egyptian government and in December of last year Congress allowed Obama’s administration to establish a $50 million ‘endowment’ for Egypt, which POMED describes as “a fund which the Egyptian government would be able to draw from without the uncertainty of congressional appropriations.”
POMED notes that some observers have labeled the endowment — which has yet to receive congressional approval — the “Mubarak trust fund” and El-Fegeiry said that if approved it “will destroy any ambitions we have about concrete conditionality or benchmarking for the Egyptian government in any future bilateral relations with the US.”
“The Egyptian government will have full independence for allocating funding from this endowment, and the US will not impose any conditions in relation to democracy and human rights,” El-Fegeiry said.
Kristina Kausch, a researcher with the Spanish think tank the FRIDE Institute identified similarities between US and EU aid policy. Both are moving away from political issues and focusing on “soft support such as women’s rights and entrepreneurship;” both support GONGOs (government-operated non-governmental organizations) and both look at the region from a regional security perspective.
“Democracy and human rights are definitely not the priority,” Kausch said.
El-Fegeiry echoed this, saying that democracy intervention in the world has declined. He noted that the European Union’s European Neighborhood Policy instrument — under which states receive financial assistance provided they meet democracy and economic reform conditions — “has been shaped by governments like Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan who have shown strong resistance to any compliant with human rights and democracy commitments.”
El-Fegeiry noted that during the recent EU-Egypt Association Council meeting Spain exerted pressure “to water down” criticism of Egyptian domestic policy. He added that Spain — which is due to host the first EU-Egypt summit this year “is making a lot of pressure to avoid embarrassment for Mubarak” at the summit.
The CIHRS Executive Director called on both the EU and the US to offer an “attractive” aid package to Egypt while at the same time linking the offer to “specific human rights and democracy criteria such as freedom of association and protection of human rights defenders.”
El-Fegeiry commented on the necessity of focusing on these issues because “international actors will not engage directly in issues such as elections and power transfer.”