United States Economic Assistance to Egypt: Does it Advance Reform?

Testimony before the House International Relations Committee

House International Relations CommitteeHearing on "United States Economic Assistance to Egypt: Does it Advance Reform?"June 17, 2004
Testimony of Michele Dunne, Ph.D.Visiting Scholar, Democracy and Rule of Law ProgramThe Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to testify. Having worked on democracy assistance to Egypt during assignments at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and National Security Council staff and then studied the issue from outside government, I welcome the opportunity to present my thoughts to you. With your permission, I will focus primarily on the impact of American assistance on the prospects for political (versus economic) reform.

First, democracy assistance to Egypt can be effective only as part of a coherent policy strategy including active engagement with the Egyptian government on the structural changes in law and practice that political reform demands. The U.S. Agency for International Development's programs have helped to build Egyptians' ability to participate in a democratic system, but not their opportunity to do so. For example, several years of assistance to non-governmental organizations has strengthened Egyptians' skills in running their organizations, but has not helped change restrictive laws that keep civil society groups from operating freely and practicing advocacy effectively. Modest bottom-up pressure of the sort that can be generated through democracy programs alone will not force an unwilling governing elite to share power, nor are the amounts of assistance under consideration enough to persuade them.

Second, the U.S. government should raise the relevant issues in private discussions with the Egyptian government at senior levels and reinforce them with public statements on the need for reform in Egypt and throughout the region. Recent steps by the American administration in this regard have been important factors in opening up political space in Egypt for discussion of reform. President Bush raised the issue with President Mubarak for the first time at their April 2004 summit in Crawford, in preparation for which Mubarak hosted a meeting of Egyptian and Arab civil society activists who issued a refreshingly frank and thorough statement of needed reforms. Despite the undeniable resistance among many Egyptians to the United States as the messenger of democracy and reform, the public message has nonetheless resonated among a broad spectrum of activists - Islamists and leftists as well as liberals - who have long advocated reform and are now coming forward with their own ideas.

Third, in planning a coordinated strategy of policy engagement and assistance programs, it is important to be honest and clear about the current political situation in Egypt. The Egyptian government has shown a readiness to modernize certain institutions - for example, the judiciary - and is now allowing discussion of liberalizing aspects of political life. It has not, however, shown any intention to democratize, by which I mean giving the Egyptian people the right and ability to change their government. All of the U.S. democracy assistance programs so far, and most under contemplation, aim at modernization and liberalization, which can certainly improve people's lives but do not necessarily lead to democratic transformation. Such transformation could eventually happen when the governing elite decides that it can no longer resist strong internal pressure for change, or as a result of visionary leadership.

Fourth, although Egypt is not necessarily on the cusp of democratic transformation, it is important to keep political reform on the public and private bilateral agenda in the coming few years, when Egypt is likely to face a leadership succession as well as parliamentary elections. While the United States cannot and should not try to force change in Egypt, it can use the significant influence it possesses to help shape the environment in which Egyptians will make important decisions about their country's future.

Fifth, the United States should be realistic about how much its assistance can achieve, but at the same time be determined to spend U.S. funds only on programs that stand a real chance of aiding political liberalization with a view toward eventual democratization. Specific policy recommendations include:

  • Concentrate in the policy dialogue and in programs on issues that Egyptians themselves have identified as critical: lifting Emergency Laws, revising laws on forming political parties and regulating non-governmental organizations, forming an independent electoral commission and monitoring bodies, and amending the constitution to provide for direct election of the president, term limits, and redistribution of power from the executive to legislative and judicial branches.
  • Make major program commitments only in areas where the Egyptian government has demonstrated the will to reform, or critical areas where the U.S. government is prepared to work hard on persuading the Egyptian government to open up.
  • Retain enough flexibility in the assistance program to be able to respond to opportunities or challenges that arise; i.e., avoid committing all the funds to large, multi-year projects.
  • Carve out funds that can be disbursed by the U.S. government directly, with Egyptian government agreement only to general program guidelines.
  • Seek alternative destinations for funds should the U.S. and Egyptian governments be unable to agree on meaningful programs.

Finally, it helps to recall that Egypt is for the Egyptians, and all of the important decisions ultimately belong to them. At the same time, the United States' influence is not neutral, and should be used in the service of regional peace and internal reform, the two overarching issues that face Egypt and the Middle East today.

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