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William Fisher: Is George Bush Listening?

Is George Bush Listening?

By William Fisher

Now that President Bush has disgorged himself of his Olympian rhetoric about spreading freedom around the world, perhaps he is now wondering just how he' s going to achieve this noble goal.

His inaugural address, as West Wing speechwriters like to say, had "altitude" . But they, and hopefully he, know that real progress toward freedom takes place on the ground, not at 35,000 feet.

How is the President going to spread freedom in, say, Egypt? Over the last twenty-eight years, the U.S. has sent some $50 billion in military and economic aid to Egypt. America's generosity was originally based on one issue: the U.S.S.R. We sent money to keep the Egyptians in our sphere of influence and out of theirs.

And then came a second issue: Israel. We rewarded Egypt for making peace with Israel. Finally, came the 'war or terror', and we paid Egypt to suppress its own Islamic extremists and to help us to do the same with ours.

The U.S.S.R. issue has disappeared. Egypt and Israel are at peace only because Egypt failed to destroy its neighbor. And as for keeping fundamentalists from rising, President Bush needs to listen to Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

Dr. Ibrahim is the U.S.-born Egyptian human rights crusader who spent more than two years in an Egyptian prison after President Mubarak's security forces arrested him for "deliberately disseminating false information abroad harmful to Egypt's interests" and other trumped-up charges - only to be acquitted after two sham trials. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Dr. Ibrahim wrote,

"Over nearly a quarter of a century, (the Egyptian Government) has perfected the art of scare politics, at home and abroad. Those in Mubarak's regime argue that if he allowed democratization to proceed unchecked, with fair and honest elections, Islamists would undoubtedly take over. Isn't it these dismal failings that feed popular discontent and contribute to the Islamists' growing numbers? Isn't it Mubarak's repression of secular civil forces that has kept the field empty for the Islamists... where there are now more than 100,000 mosques where they can freely preach their message -- but only a handful of registered political parties and human rights groups?"

The website of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) describes Egypt as "a moderate government and a strong ally of the U.S. in the Middle East. U.S.-Egyptian relations are solidly based on shared and multifaceted strategic interests, which includes the achievement of peace and stability in the region. The bilateral relationship serves national security interests of both the U.S and Egypt."

Right. But how does that spread freedom around the world? USAID says its object is to "assist Egypt enhance its global competitiveness while broadly spreading the opportunities and benefits made possible by a stronger economy.This serves to enhance the stability of both the country and the region."

USAID has done a great deal of worthwhile work in Egypt. It has funded basic infrastructure, helped improve health and education, and strengthened the private sector. Yet illiteracy, unemployment, crony capitalism, poverty and out-migration remain rampant. And, to quote Dr. Ibrahim again: "Why has Egypt's ranking during (President Mubarak's) rule steadily worsened on every development index -- from that of the U.N. Development Program to the World Bank to Freedom House? And why does Egypt now rank with Russia, Syria and Nigeria among the most corrupt countries in the world? "

One answer is that only a tiny proportion of American assistance is directed toward what USAID calls "Governance and Participation" - the only areas remotely connected to 'spreading freedom'. USAID says its support "focuses on limited activities in strengthening civil society, improving the rule of law, and improving participation and service quality and delivery in selected communities. Expected results include increased institutional capacity of civil society organizations, increased participation in local decision-making, and greater transparency and efficiency in the judicial sector."

The reason these activities are 'limited' is that Egypt, like all other countries receiving U.S. help, has to want this kind of help, and Egypt clearly does not. It has persisted in the sham of one-candidate 'elections', arrested and imprisoned dozens of political and social dissidents over the years, cracked down on non-governmental and human rights groups, encouraged or looked the other way at the most virulent anti-Semitic and anti-American rants in the government-controlled press, and virtually eliminated freedom of expression, speech and assembly. And it has doggedly clung to its so-called 'Emergency Laws', now used to rein in virtually all political dissent, not just Islamist.

If President Bush is serious about spreading freedom in Egypt and elsewhere, he needs to reassess America's aid priorities. He needs to let President Mubarak know that he believes freedom flows from a vibrant civil society, and that the U.S. intends to invest in helping it grow. The U.S. needs to greatly expand its aid to civil society organizations, including those championing human rights. Moreover, that kind of aid ought to go directly to the organizations, not to the government of Egypt.

Many of these organizations have acquired a remarkable degree of professionalism, especially considering the repressive NGO law under which they are forced to operate. These organizations make substantial use of volunteers in a part of the world where there is little history of voluntarism. In all societies that have morphed from authoritarianism to democracy, the NGO sector has played a vital catalytic role. It is capable of doing so in Egypt. What it lacks is resources - money. And the U.S. should respond positively to what is without doubt an opportunity to 'spread freedom'.

If Mr. Mubarak continues to hide behind the threat of Islamic extremism to stifle dissent from everyone else, American taxpayers have a right to demand that their tax dollars go elsewhere.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa for the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He served in the Kennedy Administration. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO BILL FISHER (

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