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William Fisher: Our $2 Billion Leverage

Our $2 Billion Leverage

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Friday 12 May 2006

This is a big day for me: I am publicly confessing to agreeing with Max Boot.

The often conservative-leaning foreign policy expert from the Council on Foreign Relations wrote last week in the Los Angeles Times, "If Bush wants to show that he is still serious about promoting 'the expansion of freedom,' he could begin by making an example of Egypt ... Why, oh why, is this repugnant regime still getting $2 billion a year in American subsidies?"

Bravo, Max.

The genesis of that $2 billion in military and economic aid was Egypt's decision to recognize the State of Israel back in 1982. It was the first such decision in the Arab world, and not an easy one for Egypt to make. It resulted from the courageous visit of then-President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977 - courage that Sadat paid for with his life. The two countries haven't exactly been pals since then, but they have exchanged ambassadors and maintained proper, if often cool, diplomatic relations. The US expected Egypt to play a "moderating role" to cool Middle East tensions.

The $2 billion was Egypt's reward - and it has been the gift that keeps on giving - despite the steady flow of anti-Semitic rhetoric that emanates from Egypt's largely state-controlled press.

Part of that $2 billion is spent on programs administered by the US Agency for International Development - USAID. I know about these programs up close and personal - I managed a couple of them for several years in the late 1990s and the earlier years of this century.

Like most USAID programs, it has really helpful components like improving physical infrastructure, rural agricultural practices, and maternal and children's health. It has hopeful but largely ineffective components designed to help Egypt's bureaucracy to adopt more rational policies, promote public sector accountability, and curb runaway public and private corruption.

The largest slice of these programs is built on the premise that strengthening the country's private sector will create jobs, introduce equity into the banking system, enhance capital formation, encourage transparency, and help the country to develop the skills it needs to benefit from globalization.

Despite USAID's best efforts, these programs must be judged to have failed. For many years, Egypt has had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the Middle East. More than 75% percent of college graduates remain unemployed for years after graduation. Until the US and Europe dramatically pulled back on granting visas to Middle Easterners, the country suffered a debilitating brain-drain. And, despite a few show trials, corruption has remained rampant in both public and private sectors. The middle class has shrunk, the super-rich have gotten richer, and the gulf between the super-rich and the ordinary citizen has become the Grand Canyon of the Middle East.

So despite our $2 billion, Egypt remains an economic basket case.

And as for democracy-promotion programs, forget it: USAID has never been able to sponsor any such programs. There are three reasons.

First, Egypt has a substantial, courageous and vocal community of non-governmental organizations that advocate for human rights, gender equality, labor and consumer protection, and educational and health care reform. But these organizations are forced to operate under a draconian NGO law that demands that they register with the government, and that places severe restrictions on what they can do, who they can accept contributions from, and who sits on their boards of directors.

Second, it is one of the daily frustrations USAID faces that any proposed aid program must have the agreement of the host country. So it is Egypt, not the US, who decides what USAID can and can't do. USAID had tried many times to use its $2 billion leverage to introduce, for example, programs to reform the country's distorted educational curriculum. But these efforts have thus far been in vain, and many have questioned the extent to which the US is prepared to use its leverage.

Third, the whole country continues to live under the so-called Emergency Law, passed 25 years ago to protect the population from Islamic extremists, such as the one who assassinated Anwar Sadat. Under this law, the average Egyptian citizen has zero civil liberties. Parliament - dominated for years by the president's National Democratic Party - defines political parties and, ergo, who can run for what. The emergency law empowers the government to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone it considers a "dissident" - without charges, without lawyers, and without trials.

Which brings us to today.

In his second inaugural, President Bush vowed to spread freedom throughout the world. Egypt's aging dictator, Hosni Mubarak, responded with a pledge to open the country's presidential election to multiple political parties. The result was Mubarak getting more than 80 per cent of a small turnout, and his principal challenger ending up with five years in the slammer on dubious charges of forging signatures to get on the ballot.

The US said it was "disappointed."

Then followed a parliamentary election - marked by widespread violence and electoral fraud. Mubarak's party toadies forced voters away from polling places and violently broke up rallies to minimize the gains of the main opposition group, the once-violent Muslim Brotherhood. The banned Brotherhood won 88 seats anyway.

Again, the US said it was "disappointed."

When two judges demanded that they be allowed to investigate the rigged election, they were stripped of their judicial immunity, opening the way to their being questioned by the dreaded Security Services and criminally charged. And when peaceful demonstrators gathered to express their support for the judges, the cops descended with clubs and tear gas.

And, once again, the US said it was "disappointed."

Then came King Mubarak pushing a two-year extension of the Emergency Law through parliament, despite his repeated pre- and post-election promises to repeal it and replace it with a rational anti-terrorist law.

When human rights groups protested, Egyptian security officials broke up their demonstration and arrested eleven of them, including an award-winning blogger, Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam. Human Rights Watch reported that more than 100 people had been detained over the previous two weeks "for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression." Approximately half of those arrested were members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were putting up posters and distributing leaflets protesting the emergency rule extension. The others were detained for demonstrating in support of judges campaigning for greater judicial independence.

"These new arrests indicate that President Mubarak intends to silence all peaceful opposition," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.

The US again expressed its "disappointment."

What happened to Dubya's fervor for spreading freedom? Is "disappointment" synonymous with actually using the leverage gained by $2 billion a year?

Now we learn that the State Department wants to spend $75 million supporting pro-democracy groups in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. As reported by my colleagues at InterPress News Service (IPS), the money is to be spent on empowering civil society, providing supplemental requests, broadcasting into Iran, promoting democracy, offering scholarships and fellowships, and enhancing communication.

Max Boot is right about the obscenity of our $2 billion support for the Mubarak regime - and funding for many other Mubaraks in the Middle East and elsewhere. But I'm sorry to say I have to characterize as wishful thinking his suggestion to "Take the money away from Mubarak and give it to democracy-promotion programs across the Middle East. That would be a shot heard 'round the world."

Because guess what? Nobody wants it.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner and Iranian human rights advocate and dissident Shirin Ebadi was asked about the State Department appropriation on PBS last week. "Will such a program be helpful to assist democracy advocates like yourself?" asked the News Hour's Margaret Warner.

Ebadi's response: "No, I don't think it will benefit people like me because whoever speaks about democracy will be accused of having been paid by the US."

Ebadi is not alone.

Her position is not surprisingly held by governments in the Middle East. But it is also held by many civil society activists in the region.

The official governmental responses of countries in the Middle East to this new State Department initiative are predictable, and they all contain a huge element of hypocrisy. None of these countries - none - are anything even remotely approaching democracies. None allow dissent, freedom of speech or association. None have a free press. None do much to protect women's rights or any other kinds of rights. Pro-democracy programs are the last thing they want.

But all of these countries have courageous communities of NGOs and individual rights activists who risk their freedom every day simply by speaking out.

For many of these advocates, refusing State Department funds stems not only from the threat of still more repression - they're used to that. They don't want our money because they feel that America has forfeited the legitimacy to be a credible champion of their values.

By invading Iraq. By preaching human rights while abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. By running secret CIA prisons. By waging a silent war on Muslims at home. By snooping on its own citizens. By extolling democracy while cozying up to dictators like Hosni Mubarak as long as they pledge fealty in the Global War on Terror. By failing to show any consistent, high-level commitment to getting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back on the two-state roadmap. By a bring-it-on president who dismisses critics as unpatriotic while exhorting his citizens to "stay the course."

These US actions have come at a high price. They have cost us our once-vaunted position as the world's most consistent advocate for human rights.

Reputation, once lost, is exceeding difficult to regain. It may take us a generation of policy-change to reclaim it.

But President Bush could still begin this journey of a thousand miles with the single step of using the leverage we still have to stand up against the Mubaraks of the world. That would, as Max Boot writes, be "a shot heard 'round the world."


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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