Inter Press Service
For years, U.S. officials and nongovernmental organizations devoted to democracy promotion toiled in the Middle East with little expectation of success.
Now, with the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia toppled and rebellions raging from Libya to Yemen, these officials and organizations face unprecedented opportunities but also new questions about the U.S. role.
Critics cite the Barack Obama administration's inconsistency in failing to intervene more forcefully against government repression of dissidents particularly in Bahrain, where the United States has run into Saudi determination to preserve a minority Sunni regime at all cost.
In Egypt and Tunisia, however, the U.S. has pivoted quickly from "democracy promotion to democracy consolidation," said J. Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration in charge of democracy programs in the Middle East and North Africa.
Carpenter, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said U.S. aid organizations and NGOs have been "overwhelmed by the demand" for technical assistance on how to organize parties and run campaigns, particularly in Egypt, where legislative elections are due in September and presidential elections before the end of the year.
"There is an incredible opportunity to leverage the relationships" Americans have built with Arab civil society groups during the years when it seemed that autocratic regimes would never change, he said.
Others worry that organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute (IRI), which are funded by the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's U.S. Agency for International Development lack the personnel to evaluate all the requests from civil society groups for about 65 million dollars in reprogrammed U.S. aid for Egypt.
"It's a pretty chaotic atmosphere and that's not usually a recipe for doing things well," said Michelle Dunne, an expert on Middle East democracy programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
At the same time, the military-led transitional Egyptian government would prefer more economic aid to compensate for the losses caused by political unrest and uncertainty. Dunne said two Egyptian officials are in Washington this week lobbying for debt relief.
According to Dunne, Egypt pays 330 million dollars a year in debt service — more than its annual 250 million dollars in U.S. economic aid — to service a U.S. debt of 3.1 billion dollars. In the current austere U.S. economic climate, however, such requests are not meeting an enthusiastic response.
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, also said Egypt needs more economic support than the Obama administration is prepared to give. At the same time, he faults U.S. officials for failing to hold Egypt's interim government to its promises to be inclusive and transparent in organizing the transition to a post-Hosni Mubarak democracy.
The military council rushed through amendments to the constitution and a Mar. 19 referendum in which 77 percent of those voting approved the changes, which establish term limits for the president but allow him to retain extraordinary powers. Turnout in the referendum was under 50 percent and many secular groups complained that they had been given no opportunity to comment on the amendments.
Meanwhile, the emergency law in effect in Egypt since 1981 has yet to be repealed. Police have arrested, beaten and even shot democracy advocates and sought to break up rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The situation is far worse in Bahrain, where scores have been killed, half a dozen political prisoners have died in custody and the government moved this week to outlaw long-standing political parties representing the island's Shiite majority.
While the Obama administration has been consistent rhetorically in opposing the use of force and supporting universal rights to free expression, "where they've been inconsistent is in the level of effort they've provided," said the Carnegie Endowment's Dunne.
She attributed some of the U.S. failings to a losing struggle with Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain to back the local Sunni monarchy and objected bitterly when Washington nudged Mubarak aside.
"We always thought we had a set of common interests with the Saudis but always knew that we had different values and that can't be swept under the rug anymore," Dunne said.
Even where the U.S. appears to have nimbly adjusted policy to support democratic gains, it faces scepticism and suspicion about its motives. In Egypt, critics allege that the U.S. is trying to boost secular parties against the Muslim Brotherhood, an 83-year-old organization that is finally able to compete openly for political support.
"An organic explosion is going on and no Western hand can help," Hisham Hellyer, an Egypt expert at the University of Warwick and organizer of a new interactive website, Tahrir Squared, told the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank, earlier this week. He said U.S. efforts would actually bolster the Brotherhood, which is expected to win 15-25 percent of seats in a new parliament.
Any Egyptian political groups that take outside money "will have their credibility shot," Hellyer said.
However, Thomas Garrett, vice president for programmes at IRI, said the intention of groups like his is "not to level the playing field between particular groups but to level the playing field in general."
Garrett said that U.S. aid provides training for multiple groups at one time and does not come in the form of cash payments to individual political parties.
While current grant restrictions prevent U.S. contractors from assisting the Muslim Brotherhood, Garrett said his organization had trained Islamic groups in other countries, such as Indonesia and Iraq. He did not rule out similar assistance to a party or parties formed by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt.
"It's exhilarating," he said of IRI's activities in Egypt. "We've been working since 2005 with Egyptian political activists and now the democratic universe has vastly expanded."