Shadi Hamid wrote an article in the most recent issue of “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas” offering a damning assessment, if not quite a scathing indictment, of US aid to Egypt under Obama and more generally. The article contains lots of good points, including similar points about local elections to the ones we made the other day. It also contains many points about which reasonable people may disagree. Being reasonable people, we decided to disagree with many of Hamid’s points.
Democracy and Human Rights Aid
First off, we’re a bit cynical about the ability of US democratization aid to ever make a real impact on bringing democracy to Egypt or anywhere else, so we find it difficult to get worked up about whether the amount earmarked for democracy promotion and human rights advocacy is $60 million or $20 million.
We understand that as a symbolic act reducing the amount of aid to these perhaps worthy programs lets the Egyptian regime know that democratization is not really a US priority. But was there any doubt about this previously? Our answer is no, and we wonder whether, when budgets were higher in the past, the majority of the funding was going to GONGOs? If so, then reducing democratization aid should have little effect, since said GONGOs are likely hamstrung by their regime affiliations.
Finally, in our rather limited experience, democratization aid tends to go toward things like workshops to teach people about democracy and paying native English speakers to write the reports about how money is being spent that funders demand. Perhaps we’re in an especially sour mood, but we tend to believe that democracy-supporting NGOs are not very important in fostering democracy. Human rights NGOs, on the other hand, are important and should be funded, so long as they are actually involved in uncovering and documenting actual human rights abuses, as opposed to workshopping and conducting training sessions for fellow travelers. In short, we believe that most people in Egypt and elsewhere already understand human rights and democracy, so the only valuable contribution to be made is in furthering their implementation, rather than considering them alien concepts that people would take seriously if only they understood them.
The Palestinian Connection
We’re of two minds on the debate around whether the creation of a Palestinian state will create a democratic dividend in the region. We believe it necessary on its own terms, of course. But we also think it quite simplistic when writers claim that regimes in the region use the Palestinian issue to focus citizens’ anger away from the regimes’ own misdeeds. It has been our experience that people (not just in the Middle East, but everywhere, if you can imagine) are perfectly capable of denouncing injustice abroad without forgetting about injustice at home. Our guess is that people feel strongly about the issue because the abuses the average Palestinian suffers on a daily basis are actually worse than what the average Egyptian suffers.
As with people, so with governments. We believe that a government like the one in the US is perfectly capable of negotiating a settlement in Palestine-Israel and paying attention to democratization in Egypt, if it wished to do so. But it doesn’t wish to do so.
Also we’re not sure for what exactly the US relies on Egypt to do that the current Egyptian regime wouldn’t be doing on its own. The only thing the Egyptians provide to the US, as far as we can tell, is a channel to Hamas, and that is based on the dumb US policy of not talking to Hamas, which could be changed if US policymakers weren’t so (insert your own word here).
In our opinion, a Palestinian state, whether via a one or two-state solution, is a necessary condition for democracy in Egypt, at least from a US viewpoint, though not for the reasons Hamid puts forward. Although we despair at making claims about what Egyptians think, we think we can state that most Egyptians are rather less concerned with Israel’s concerns than is the regime, and if actually free elections were held today the new government would mirror these feelings. While some mistrust and dislike would naturally carry over after the establishment of a Palestinian state, it would likely not be as intense as it is now. Thus it would be much harder to run on a platform of taking a hard line against Israel, or at least it would resonate less, which would in turn make it much easier for US policymakers to support democracy in Egypt. We are not saying this is as it should (or shouldn’t) be, just that we think this is how it is.
His Proposed Solutions and Ours
We don’t find the idea of positive conditionality likely to be implemented. If the regime did accede to the benchmarks set for it to receive the extra funds, it would be planning its own possible downfall, since it would probably not win free elections. Furthermore, even if the Obama administration did do a big rollout event, we don’t see it as particularly risky for the regime to refuse it. There would be a big press campaign against US meddling in Egyptian affairs, which might sway some people. Perhaps more importantly, many Egyptians are realistic (or cynical) enough to realize that even if the aid was earmarked for development projects to benefit the population, it would most likely end up lining the pockets of corrupt officials instead.
Hamid presupposes that the Brotherhood wants to talk to the US. We think this is a mistake for a couple reasons. First, the Brotherhood is currently riven by internal splits. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the “reformist” side of the Brotherhood did want to engage in dialogue with the Americans. Conservatives would either veto it outright or use it to gain the upper hand in internal Brotherhood politics.
In a second scenario, the Brotherhood factions have reconciled, and are presenting a united front. The US approaches and states its interest in talking. What possible benefit would talking to the US have for the Brotherhood? The main lesson most people in the region have taken, in analyzing the peace process, Bush’s democracy rhetoric, Obama’s Cairo speech, etc., is that talk is cheap. Until the US regains some credibility by actually doing something, there is no point in engaging with it.
If anything, the Brotherhood would stand to lose from talking to the Americans, as the government-controlled press, which obviously has no shame and is not very reflective about the regime’s actual role vis-à-vis the US (as opposed to the imaginary dalliances in which regime opponents seem constantly to be engaged), would seize on any dialogue as proof that the Brotherhood is a “US agent” or some such nonsense, just as they did with al-Baradei.
This is without even considering the fact that talking to the Brotherhood would violate one of Hamid’s own conditions, of “avoiding unnecessary confrontation with the regime.“ We have no idea what formal steps the regime would take if the US did start talking to the Brotherhood, but we can imagine it would lead to a confrontation, whether unnecessary or not, as did Bush’s democratization rhetoric and Condoleezza Rice’s shot across the bow at Oriental Hall.
While we don’t exactly see the situation as hopeless, we don’t think much can be done until there is a reappraisal of the relationship as a whole, as opposed to playing in the margins. As we alluded to above, we believe the most important thing US-based democracy-in-Egypt-supporters could be doing right now is voicing full-throated support for a settlement in Palestine, which is the only way that such a reappraisal will become possible from a US-centric (which more or less means Israel-centric) viewpoint.
One thing the US administration could do is to dangle the US-Egypt free trade agreement as a carrot for democratization. While we are under no illusions that this alone would change the relationship, it is one of the few things that the US can offer from which actually important NDP constituencies would benefit. The top layer is probably too wedded to staying in power to care about a potential FTA, but the quid pro quo could help in peeling off some support from the businessmen around Gamal or creating a democratic wing of the National Democratic Party, as Howard Dean might say.
Finally, we must take issue with some of the article’s excesses, particularly the contention that Middle Easterners were anything less than courteous even in the darkest years of the Bush administration, and the idea that the Middle East is “a region known for its stubborn resistance to change,” which we thought a rather overbroad characterization. And traffic lights are sprouting up everywhere in Cairo. We counted five in Midan Talaat Harb alone.