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Since the “NGO crisis,” when American, European, and Egyptian NGOs were tried and expelled from Egypt, much debate among Washington policymakers has focused on the future of U.S.-Egypt relations, particularly the future of U.S. support for democracy in Egypt. Some argue that while the old model of U.S. policy toward Egypt must be reconsidered, the U.S. should continue to promote Egyptian democracy. Others maintain that the current environment in Egypt is simply not conducive for U.S. democracy promotion.

A key component largely absent from these debates is the Egyptian perspective. At Fikra Forum, we asked Egyptian contributors, from political activists and bloggers to journalists and analysts, one question: “What do you want?” Many responded by arguing that existing U.S. efforts will backfire and suggested specific alternatives. We believe that the following responses by Esraa Abdel Fattah, Mahmoud Salem, Magdy Samaan, Mohamed Abdelbaky, and Amr Mohamed El Bakly will provide a useful contribution to the ongoing discussion and we look forward to your comments.

Esraa Abdel Fattah: Now is Not the Time

After the recent raid on civil society organizations during which members of convicted organizations were sent to court and then the travel ban on members of the U.S. organizations was suddenly lifted, I do not have much hope in the success of any attempt now by the United States to support democracy in Egypt. At this time, neither the Egyptian people nor the civil society organizations will trust any U.S.-backed democracy programs.

Instead, I advise the United States to put aside its direct support for democracy and support the economy and, in particular, education. Any serious projects should have a clear timeline and should focus on impacting people’s everyday lives, such as supporting technological development, youth and unemployment, housing, foreign investments, etc. This will not only indirectly support political stability in Egypt, but it will also help give people more confidence in the U.S. government. At this time, any kind of direct projects related to democracy support or political activities will not be suitable for Egyptian society.

Esraa Abdel Fattah is an Egyptian internet activist and blogger and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement.

Mahmoud Salem: Save Yourselves the Headache

U.S.-Egypt relations may be complex, but they should never be considered unstable. The ties that bind the two countries, historically and strategically, have survived many crises and internal differences before, and it is doubtful it will start unraveling now--especially not over promoting democracy in Egypt. God knows that this hasn’t been a priority for the current administration, which was demonstrated first when President Obama’s first visit to the region after his inauguration was to President Mubarak, and then when the president’s famous first speech to the Muslim world was given in Cairo. The trend continued after the revolution with the U.S. administration’s almost non-existent policy regarding the democratic transition in Egypt.

I, personally, don’t believe that the U.S. should continue “promoting democracy” in the Middle East through the conventional method of aid to NGOs in the country, since what the U.S. would need to do to be effective, it cannot allow itself to do, and will be accused of doing so regardless. So, if the U.S. is truly interested in promoting democracy in Egypt, it should transfer its democracy aid money to thousands of college scholarships to young Egyptians from all over the country, and send them back to Egypt after living in the civil rights focused U.S. for 4 years. Once the first class graduates, thousands of Egyptians will return to their country, and will immediately sense that their society is heading in the wrong direction. These young people will start resisting the negative progression and will demand for it to change. Furthermore, they will be joined every subsequent year with thousands and thousands of like-minded individuals. What could be a better way to promote civil rights based democracy and its values then to have the people experience it themselves?

No matter who wins in the next Egyptian presidential election, the victor will be very hostile to U.S. democracy promotion efforts, partially due to their desire to scale back democratic rights to avoid having their rule challenged, and partially because it will give them negotiation leverage with the U.S. over more military or economic aid. Whether the U.S. chooses to partake in this or not, it is up to the U.S. and its interests, but I believe it shouldn’t consider any form of democracy promotion or justify funding in its name. Democracy promotion will not happen with more political party training or consulting, but with the creation of a strong voter base that believes and understands democratic values. This will only happen once young, local community leaders start promoting these values in their communities; not because they are funded to do so, but because they experienced it first-hand. Such a base is essential for establishing a real, improved environment for programs and friendlier U.S.-Egypt relations; not on the governmental level, but among the people who share common ideals and values.

This is the only effective long-term strategy that the U.S. can take with any hope for success, and would eliminate any chances for fabricated crises such as the U.S. NGO crisis that took place last year and continues to this day. The only aim of this conflict is for the Egyptian government to have negotiation leverage to garner more military and economic aid in the future, and minimize democracy promotion aid, or remove it altogether. The U.S. should simply have the democracy promotion aid out of reach of the Egyptian government in any way, shape or form, which I believe could be effectively achieved by transferring it to create a university scholarship program for Egyptians. Increased effectiveness, fewer headaches, a win-win situation.

Mahmoud Salem (known also by his blogger identity “Sandmonkey”) is a well-known Egyptian blogger and political activist. In the November 2011 parliamentary elections, he ran for political office under the Free Egyptians Party and currently serves as a member of the party’s political office and the youth secretary.

Magdy Samaan: The Dream of Creative Arab Youths in the Face of the U.S. Administration’s Old Strategies

If you ask the average man on the street in Egypt, “What role should the United States play in supporting democracy in Egypt?” he will answer with the question, “Does the U.S. truly want to support democracy in Egypt?!” or say, “Leave us in our situation."

This is not only the sentiment of the average person you meet, but also that of Arab liberals, who once bet on President Bush's freedom agenda for the Middle East, but have now become skeptical of the sincerity of U.S. intentions after the U.S. administration failed them and left them in the middle of the road. The United States’ credibility has been losing ground among people in the Arab world, especially with the issue of foreign organizations operating in Egypt, which has greatly tainted the image of the United States. The Military Council portrayed these organizations as dens of spies working against the Egyptian revolution.

More so, the U.S. has lost much of its credibility due to its two-faced discourse witnessed over the past decades, chanting slogans in support of democracy and human rights while simultaneously supporting non-democratic regimes on the ground. So, the question now is not “How can the U.S. support democracy in Egypt?” but rather, “How can the U.S. repair its relationship with the Egyptian people?” Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to deal with whomever the Egyptian people choose.

During her testimony in the case of foreign organizations operating in Egypt, Egyptian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Fayza Abul Naga, stated that the “goal of the U.S. in financing organizations during the period between 2005 and 2010 was to put some pressure on the former regime that would not amount to aborting it.” She also noted that the United States was aiming at provoking weak actors in the former regime who would comply with its wishes and improve its image internationally as caretakers of human rights by funding these organizations.

In my opinion, there does not seem to be any fundamental change in the U.S. strategy in dealing with Egypt and the countries of the Arab spring. While Arab youths have used creative ideas to overcome the control of the ruling authority, which is on its way to extinction, the U.S. administration has used the same classic strategy that it has used since the end of colonialism after World War II. This strategy is essentially the alliance with authoritarian regimes hated by their people, and can be controlled by waving principles of freedom and democracy before the American people, which disturbs these regimes.

Training programs relating to the support of democracy are the last thing that Egyptians need right now; there is a strong political road that knows what it wants. The obstacle hindering democracy in Egypt does not lie in their ignorance of how it works, but in the fact that the ruling army in control of the country has no political will for this to happen. We need Washington to stop taking the side of anti-democratic forces in Egypt, whether at home or abroad, and the Egyptians themselves will take care of the rest that needs to be achieved.

The deposed President Hosni Mubarak used the Islamists and the preservation of peace in the Middle East as tools to block democracy. The same cards used by Mubarak can be reversed and used to support democracy by pressuring for peace in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinians on the one hand and pressuring Islamists to comply with the essence of the democratic system on the other hand.

Islamists represent an obstacle to the democratic transition in Egypt. Until now, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic religious parties cannot be considered democratic forces. The unfolding conflict in Egypt since the uprising of January 2011 can be summarized as a conflict between democratic forces and non-democratic forces, the Military Council and Islamic movements on one side and the democratic civil forces on the other. When Dr. Mohamed El Baradei withdrew from the upcoming presidential elections, having been the most prominent competing civil force, the power struggle in Egypt in the presidential elections scheduled for later this month shifted to a competition between two forces that have a tainted and questionable understanding of democracy.

The U.S. position in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to reach power was one of the main reasons for the group to reverse their decision not to compete for power in Egypt. The MB is aware that the economic situation in Egypt does not hold them responsible for international isolation similar to Iran or even Gaza. It is not required to exclude Islamists--that is unrealistic and ineffective--but their commitment to democratic norms--to which they have not complied so far--is required. The United States should tell us in advance its position in the event that the Islamists do not abide by the terms of a democratic system established by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which was stated repeatedly. In case of their access to power, will the U.S. deal with them in that case or not?

Perhaps the Military Council, an ally of Washington, has succeeded in aborting the revolution, while reproducing a façade of a democratic system, directing it from behind the scenes to save their interests as well as the international and narrow regional interests, which is the same as what Washington wants. However, controlling the aspirations of the people in the Arab world is difficult. Young people leading political movements on the street now have a dream like the dream of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela, a dream to be part of the free world and part of a homeland that provides a free and dignified life for them. Standing by their side is in the best interest of peace and mutual interests.

When American principles are in conflict with their interests, the U.S. administration prefers interests than principles, which is their right and duty, but the game of dual speech, secretly working for their interests and improving their image by pretending to support democracy, has already been revealed and is unacceptable. Egyptians will not accept that anybody uses their blood to improve their image. More so, the U.S. government has to look for a new formula when dealing with the Middle East and take the people into consideration as a first step in repairing their relationship with the growing Egyptian street, rather than repairing the collapsing Military regime.

Magdy Samaan is an Egyptian journalist.

Mohamed Abdelbaky: Democracy Promotion in Egypt Now, but How About Later On?

The crisis of "external financing" for civil society organizations between the United States and Egypt may have revealed the Egyptian government’s and the ruling Military Council’s desire to silence opposing voices, while on the other hand, to close the door completely to any international assistance in the field of democratic and political reform.

At the same time, however, this crisis is a real opportunity for Washington to re-calculate and review policies related to democracy promotion in Egypt over the past seven years. Such policies began in 2005, when Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, announced from the platform of the American University, the U.S. administration’s commitment to support democracy in the Arab World against the “police regimes.”

At the moment, the return to Cairo with human rights and democracy promotion would be a big risk. The transition phase in Egypt has reached a dead end and the political process as a whole is experiencing a high level of liquidity, which makes proper assessment of the situation nearly impossible. Presidential elections may be postponed at any time, and there are expectations that the parliament will soon be dissolved due to the unconstitutionality of the Election Law. There is a high probability of the political situation returning to square one.

The instability and fragility of the political situation is not the only problem facing the United States in their pursuit of contributing to the field of democratic development, but also the public opinion, which has an obsession with the interference "from the international community." Since the impeachment of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11th, this situation has been reinforced by the exchange of charges of treason and employment of third parties amongst the political forces. For example, the Islamist movements have accused youth groups and liberal parties of employing the United States and receiving training in Washington to turn against the Mubarak regime, whereas others accuse the Salafi movements of receiving funds from Gulf countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

To continue the support for democracy in these circumstances will make the U.S. vulnerable to permanent attack by the Military Council, or some political currents. Additionally, democracy support projects will not succeed because the political environment is not ready for such assistance at this time.

Some opt for an easier solution, which is to direct aid toward economic reform and good governance programs, but this would only be a "lie to ourselves" and exhibit a lack of understanding of the reality of the past two decades. The results of U.S. programs have not achieved any success for the simple reason that the Mubarak regime never had a real intention to reform the localities in Egypt, but only to control and consolidate his central rule over every corner in Egypt.

The evidence shows that Mubarak did not support decentralization projects that began in Egypt over 15 years ago because he did not change the laws that govern localities and did not agree to local elections for the positions of mayor, governor, and head of city councils. The only allowance given by the Mubarak regime was to direct part of U.S. and international aid to projects of good governance for fear of money being spent on projects that promote democracy and human rights.

Therefore, no money should be directed to good governance programs until the next Egyptian government and the current parliament can show a real intention to develop localities, fight against their corruption, and start real decentralization by allowing the people to elect the post of Governor. Otherwise, any attempt to support good governance projects at this time will end in the same fate as their counterparts during the Mubarak era.

In order for any efforts in supporting democracy to achieve good results, the road map for the political process in Egypt should be clear. Therefore, it is better to wait until the end of the process of electing a new president, and the handover of power to a civilian ruler. Hence, the second step is to start a transparent dialogue with the new president, and to come up with a satisfactory formula to complete the support in accordance with priorities of Egyptian interests.

The dialogue with the new president must be preceded by a broad dialogue with all parties taking part in the democratic process, such as civil society, political parties, and youth movements, taking care not to impose the new president’s conditions or restrictions on anything. At the same time, the U.S. should obtain guarantees from the Egyptian government that they will not use this file against them whenever the relationship with the United States gets strained, as happened in the recent crisis.

And certainly, the formation of the next regime is of great importance when thinking about the return of private aid to political reform and democracy. But whoever the next president is, whether Islamic or liberal or leftist, the most important thing is the belief that Egypt begins a new phase in which the ballot box governs the political process, not the ideology of the president. Therefore, the organizations that support democracy in Egypt must go beyond the game of political forces vying for power and focus on what is most important, which is building a modern democratic state.

Mohamed Abdelbaky is an Egyptian journalist focusing on issues of political reform and human rights.

Amr Mohamed El Bakly: The Egyptian-American Relationship: Two Governments or Two Peoples?

Egyptian-American relations have been characterized by a high degree of tension in the past year, which peaked during the crisis of the foreign civil society organizations. The offices of American organizations in Egypt were raided, which instigated heated arguments among decision-makers in both countries regarding U.S. aid and coincided with a state-run media campaign in Egypt against civil society organizations. This conflict amounted to harsh mutual accusations from both countries in the press.

In my opinion, the imbalance of the issue surrounding U.S. support of democratization in Egypt stems from both the Egyptian and American sides alike. Egypt is experiencing both a political and popular struggle toward changing the nature of the authoritarian system that has been in place for sixty years. The scene is still suffering from a young and underdeveloped political culture, which became evident in the general attitudes of revolutionary and reform movements. Despite the spreading ideology of freedom, human rights, and social justice in the first days of the civilian uprising, everyone has rapidly fallen into a traditional culture of isolation, absolutism in religious and national views, as well as constant skepticism of Western intentions, and the U.S. in particular. The media machine of the state helped implant several concepts related to cultural specificity and national chauvinism. These concepts were also backed by the elite with an Islamic trend and the fundamentalist leftists who are hindering peace and democracy. They think that Western parties are using the political situation in Egypt as an entry to the return of colonialism, leading to the loss of national independence for Egypt. In addition, the state media pursued treason campaigns during the past year against democracy and human rights activists and raised the level of xenophobia amongst the people.

Moreover, Egypt’s political structure suffers greatly from a lack of civil movements, particularly on the level of secular political forces, both in terms of political parties or civil society organizations. Civil society suffered greatly under an authoritarian regime, which confiscated its right to organize, along with the absence of gradual organizational development, which finally led to the crisis of funding for these political and rights organizations. Organizations have to operate under a capitalist infrastructure and have been state controlled through the restriction of laws and a lack of free economic activity.

On the side of the U.S., the American vision toward Egypt is that they deal with the Egyptian case as one bloc. The U.S. Administration constantly mixes all levels of the scene, causing a great burden on its relationship with civilians when controversies arise on the military and governmental level. The relationship between Egyptian and American civil society has become the weaker component of the overall relationship due to government intervention on both sides. This has been evident not only during the latest crisis of the organizations, but also in past decades. The most recent example occurred when the Obama administration stopped, "upon the request of the Egyptian government," financing Egyptian organizations that are administratively not controlled directly by the government. Practically, the Obama administration discontinued the policy of direct support for democracy originally initiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush.

In general, the U.S. vision suffers from a cultural crisis among American elite due to their inability to realistically view the Middle East. This was strongly expressed in President Obama's speech in Cairo three years ago, in which the main rationale put forward by this speech is not much different from the logic of Islamic militant groups. This is the view that we represent two different worlds and values, the first Western and democratic and the second Middle Eastern and Islamic. For this reason, Obama chose Cairo instead of Jakarta or Istanbul since what those cities accomplished on the level of progress is contrary to the logic highlighted in his speech. The continuation of that view is the main justification for the support of authoritarian regimes, which will in return guarantee their interests. The recent crisis highlighted the prominent defect in that the traditional view, which was proven by General Dempsey in one sentence: "They do not have the answers." He was commenting on the silence of the present Egyptian leadership when they were asked questions about democracy, human rights, and international isolation.

I believe that international support for the democratic transition in Egypt has become necessary. A clear deficiency  in the political stability of Egypt can be attributed on one hand to the vacuum created by the collapse of the central part of the authoritarian regime as a result of the popular movement, and on the other hand, to the weakness of civil political forces at the cultural and structural level. In spite of the importance of supporting political parties and civil society activists in the fields of human rights and democracy, international support and pressure toward the liberalization of the Egyptian economy—specifically, connecting  it  to the global economy, developing legislative control over of the government’s performance, and developing micro-enterprises—is the first way to start liberating society from state control and thus toward organizational and  civil structures smaller than  political parties. For Egyptian-American relations, there is a need to gradually separate civil society from government intervention in both countries and continuously push Egyptian civil society toward globalization and integration with international and regional alliances at all levels. This will both strengthen local Egyptian civil society and develop its abilities.

I also think that education is a major long term issue. I do not mean only education in schools or traditional universities and the development of their curricula, but also civil education as a means of political awareness, as well as exchanges of students and skills, and, most importantly, the development of individual vocational skills such as supporting computer education, crafts, and micro management, and the provision of technical and economic advice.

I think that the main deficiency in civil Egyptian-American relations is due to short-term policies focused on the political level. The U.S. vision is concentrated on higher structures, and not infrastructure, which always keeps them busy with questions concerning the integrity of elections and the identity of the next president. However, the political experience over the past five months with a Muslim majority Parliament did not actually present any new policy or legislation, but revealed the transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood to be a weak copy of the National Democratic Party. Side by side, the results of this new uprising and the results of the January 25th uprising show that the developments in Egypt will come from the community and not from State.

Amr Mohamed El Bakly is a political and peace activist. He is the director of the Cairo Liberal Forum.

One Response to Do Egypt’s Democrats Want US Out?: Egyptian Views on the Future of U.S. Democracy Promotion

  1. David Schenker says:
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    Well the votes are in and it’s unanimous. Egypt’s liberals—at least those who posted on Fikra Forum and whom I know and consider to be among the best and brightest in their country—don’t want the U.S. to try and help promote democratic development on the ground anymore. Ok. We can take a hint.

    You want to do it yourself and say that if the U.S. tries to promote democracy in Egypt, the effort will be tainted. Now is just not the time. Instead, you want us to make clear our expectations. “The United States should tell us in advance its position in the event that the Islamists do not abide by the terms of a democratic system” you say. Instead of administering projects, Washington should provide scholarships to college in the U.S., and build Egyptian democrats from the ground up.

    Alright. All of these are good ideas. The U.S. wants to be helpful, and continue the long and productive relationship with Egypt. Egyptian liberals can assist in this endeavor by helping us to define some reasonable expectations. There is little doubt that Washington will continue to support the nascent Egyptian democratic project. That said, would Egyptian liberals recommend that the U.S. condition its assistance on political pluralism? How about on the treatment of women—or Coptic Christians—in Egypt? Dare I mention the maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel?

    We, like you, want to get it right. And after some 5,000 years of military rule, Egyptians deserve time to work through these very complicated issues. The U.S. has a lot invested in Egypt and wants to see post-Mubarak Egypt succeed. Likewise, the White House wants to continue to assist Egypt in whatever ways are possible. Congress is going to cut Egypt some slack, at least initially, so a hostile Islamist government will probably not result in an immediate cutoff of aid. But there’s not going to be a blank check anymore, either.

    The status of women and the degree of political and religious pluralism in the new Egypt will influence the trajectory of bilateral relations going forward. Should Cairo fall short on these fronts, it’s safe to say that hundreds of college scholarships for Egyptians courtesy of U.S. taxpayers—many of whom cannot afford to pay for college themselves—are unlikely to materialize.

    David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.