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William Fisher: Forum For The (Distant) Future

Forum For The (Distant) Future

By William Fisher

A key pillar of the much-vaunted Middle East democracy initiative of President George W. Bush has collapsed - brought down by Egypt's insistence that Arab governments should have more control over grants from a new fund designed to help indigenous pro-democracy organizations.

At an international conference attended by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and designed to strengthen local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society in the Middle East, Egyptian officials pressed for language stipulating that only organizations legally registered with their governments were covered by the new fund, known as the Foundation for the Future.

Egypt's law governing NGOs places numerous restrictions on these organizations.

The U.S. characterized the Egyptian position as inappropriate. "In our view and in the view of other delegations, this would have circumscribed NGO activity," said a senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters traveling with Rice.

The U.S. delegation expressed disappointment with Egypt, which has been a major American ally on key issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Bush administration's international fight against terrorism. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit reportedly left before the conference ended

The foundation has commitments of over $50 million to help nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions and professional associations foster freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The United States has pledged $35 million.

Saudi Arabia and Oman initially supported the Egyptian position, but ultimately all the governments except Egypt agreed to remove language that would have given them control over foreign resources going to groups in their countries.

Several Arab delegates reportedly saw the language of the U.S. draft as another indication that the Bush Administration was attempting to impose democracy "from the outside". Several delegations said that Arabs want more say in crafting criteria for change.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel; it receives roughly $2 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance annually. Since it made peace with Israel more than 25 years ago, it has received tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. It is home to more than half the Arab world's population.

The conference, known as the Forum for the Future, was held in Bahrain and brought together dozens of nations -- including 22 Arab countries and members of the G-8 industrialized countries.

The Forum is a joint U.S.-European initiative launched at the 2004 G-8 summit hosted by President Bush at Sea Island, Georgia. It is a key part of the Bush Administration's Broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Initiative. The first Forum for the Future conference was held last year in Morocco.

Because of the Egyptian action, this year's Forum ended without an official communique. Its planned final declaration would have committed MENA countries to "expand democratic practices, to enlarge participation in political and public life, to foster the roles of civil society, including NGOs, and to widen women's participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and education fields and to reinforce their rights and status in society while understanding that each country is unique."

Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist who attended the conference, was quoted by The Washington Post as charging that the government of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was holding the region "hostage to its despotism. By so doing," he said, "they leave the field clear for the theocrats . . .The theocrats still have the mosque," a reference to the fact that Egypt's proposed restriction would have limited funds available to secular democracy activists and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.

Ibrahim directs a research and advocacy institute in Cairo that monitors elections, conducts voter education projects, and at times criticizes the Egyptian government. In the summer of 2000, he and 27 of his colleagues were arrested and tried before a state security court on several charges allegedly connected to their work. All 28 defendants were found guilty on some of these charges and several were sent to jail. Ibrahim was sentenced to a seven-year term. His conviction was overturned by the Egyptian Supreme Court and he was ultimately acquitted of all charges in a second trial and released in 2003.

Ibrahim heads the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.

Dr. Omid Safi of Colgate University believes that "The failure of the Forum for the Future yet again brings to light the failure of the Bush administration to grasp that the majority of people in the Middle East will continue to judge U.S. actions not by fancy rhetoric and multi-million-dollar initiatives, but rather by the changing of our foreign policy to one that abides by international human rights agreements and empowers self-determination."

Chili Mallet, a prominent Lebanese law professor and currently a candidate for president of that country, takes a perhaps more fundamental view. Mallet, who played a key role in organizing MENA civil society groups to make their needs known to the G-8, said, "It is disappointing to see declarations going nowhere, when there was so much investment and work with civil society leaders in the countries involved. This only underlines what we described in New York in 2004, and in Rabat earlier this year, that only leaders that resemble the better side of society should be at the helm. This what we call the democratic imperative. The rest, including funding of groups, is secondary and trivial."

Egypt's Mubarak - the longest-serving leader in his country's history - was elected in September to his fifth six-year term as president in the first election in which opposition candidates were allowed to compete. The Constitutional amendment allowing the more open polling was hailed by the Bush Administration as an important step in Egypt's journey to democracy, but was widely criticized for placing improper restrictions on opposition freedom to field candidates. Mubarak won 88.6% of the votes cast.

But one authoritative observer, Prof. Ed Herman of the University of Pennsylvania, takes a decidedly skeptical and somewhat sinister view of the Forum and similar efforts to introduce democracy by strengthening local civil society.

"I'm afraid I can't sympathize with what would appear to be the 'democratic' position on this, even while I think Mubarak's and his allies' behavior is outrageous. I wouldn't let (George) Soros or The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) into my country if I was head of state as they are agents of an agenda that goes far beyond 'democracy', and amounts to a form of subversion."

George Soros is a Hungarian-born American billionaire whose foundations have funded numerous pro-democracy programs in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere, as well as a not-for-profit group known as, which was a major player in support of Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 election.

The National Endowment for Democracy is a U.S. Government-chartered private corporation whose programs are designed to assist pro-democracy forces in developing countries. Its funding comes largely from the U.S. Government.

Herman's point of view: "Instead of CIA intervention sub rosa, we now use open methods of intervention aiming toward the same ends: the establishment of an amenable regime that will open its doors to foreign investment and align with the West. This is not giving people freedom or free choice, even though it may use that nominal language and even some degree of real choice in special circumstances. This program is not used in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Indonesia, but is pushed aggressively in places like Yugoslavia and Venezuela, and not for reasons that have anything to do with democracy in a positive sense."

He adds: "The definition of an indigenous NGO is a bit tricky, as quite a few of them in contested terrain came into existence with external inspiration and money; and even apart from this it is dangerous to allow foreign resources to influence domestic choices. I can imagine a market savvy indigenous thinking - gee, if I do X I'll be able to get big bucks from abroad."

He asks: "Why can't (Middle East governments and their NGOs) simply be allowed to work things out for themselves? Rotten governments very often are thrown out by their own people, and sometimes foreign intervention helps them preserve their power as they can appeal to national pride. If I had to choose between total non-intervention and real world intervention such as we see emanating from the US and Britain, I wouldn't hesitate to choose non-intervention. Don't we have enough of our own problems to keep our hands away from those of distant countries?"

Certainly, the U.S. and other G-8 countries have more than enough problems to deal with. And there is no doubt that all money comes with some strings attached, however subtle they may be. On the other hand, the problems facing civil society organizations under authoritarian governments are simply overwhelming. With state control of media, they have no voice. With restrictions on the contributions they can accept, they have few resources. With state security police watching their every move, they cannot expand their memberships.

We are not talking here about the G-8 invading these countries. We are not talking about the CIA infiltrating NGOs' memberships. We are talking about modest financial support to strengthen civil society.

It seems to me that the over-arching question is that if wealthy democracies fail to reach out to help struggling reform movements in poorer countries, then who will?

In my view, nobody is not an option.


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