The Obama administration is getting mixed reviews for its handling of the political crisis in Egypt and deservedly so. President Obama has put the administration’s prestige and his own on the line in calling on Egypt’s embattled president Hosni Mubarak to make way for a transition to a more democratic government. In the administration’s first two years, however, the president and his foreign policy team gave little more than lip service to the cause of promoting democracy in Egypt.
Obama himself set the administration’s course with his much heralded speech at Cairo University in June 2009 that promised U.S. support for democratic reform in the Muslim world and elsewhere but avoided any criticism of Mubarak. Two months later, Obama hosted Mubarak at the White House but again made no public comment on the Egyptian government’s repressive policies.
The president’s public silence on Egyptian human rights abuses reflected the administration’s general policy of distancing itself from what Obama’s people viewed as the Bush administration’s largely ineffectual “freedom agenda.” But the administration was doing less than speaking softly. It was also dialing back U.S. aid for democratization in Egypt even as Mubarak was tightening his government’s grip.
The human rights organization Freedom House underscored the concern about democracy-related funding in Egypt in its annual report on U.S. aid for democracy and human rights in April. The report complained that the administration had apparently failed to deliver on a promise to reverse a decade-long decline in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development for “governing justly and democratically” (GJ&D) programs in Egypt. Worse, the report noted “serious concerns” about the administration’s decision to stop funding civil society groups unless they were registered with the Egyptian government.
The policy essentially gave Mubarak’s government veto power over what groups were to receive funding from USAID, the report concluded. “I have absolutely no confidence that that money was used to strengthen democratic institutions and processes,” says Sarah Trister, Freedom House’s congressional liaison officer and author of the report. “Very, very precious little of it went to civil society groups that were genuinely democratic.”
Egyptian activist Bahey El Din Hassan was also critical when he was in Washington last week for meetings with administration officials on the current crisis. "We have a lot of excellent speeches, excellent words, excellent rhetoric through more than two years from this administration," Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told NPR’s White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. “But on the ground we have nothing.”
The administration is not alone in soft-pedaling criticism of Mubarak’s government. As Josh Rogin pointed out in the foreign policy blog Cable last week [Feb. 2], the Senate failed to act last year on a bipartisan resolution urging Mubarak to allow free elections, lift the 30-year-old emergency law, release political prisoners and institute other reforms. Rogin quoted Senate aides as saying that two senators played important roles in bottling up the resolution: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker. Feinstein reportedly voiced concerns about U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on intelligence matters. Rogin noted that Wicker’s fellow Mississippian, former Rep. Robert Livingston, is with a lobbying firm that has a long-term contract to represent the Egyptian government.
The Senate belatedly passed the resolution last week [Feb. 3], but the executive branch makes foreign policy, not the Senate. And the Obama administration was remarkably clumsy as the uprising was getting under way in Egypt in late January. In a Jan. 25 news conference, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Mubarak government “stable.” On the PBS NewsHour two days later, Vice President Joe Biden resisted labeling Mubarak a dictator, calling him instead “an ally.”
Over time, the administration has moved to get the U.S. message right. Obama and Clinton have spoken out strongly to support the right of peaceful protest, condemn violence against the protesters as well as against journalists, and impress on Mubarak and other officials the need for an orderly transition to begin as Obama put it now.
The situation in Egypt is delicate. Mubarak’s mood reportedly changes from day to day, the protesters in the streets are adamant on his removal, and the military’s stance is uncertain. In the United States, Obama faces backbiting from human rights groups at the same time that neoconservatives are laying the groundwork for a “Who lost Egypt?” inquisition in the event of chaos or a militant Islamist regime.
At this point, aid to democracy groups in Egypt can have little impact. The time for bolstering U.S. aid was years ago. With some Republicans calling for eliminating foreign aid altogether, the prospect for increasing democracy assistance to other countries is less than favorable. Indeed, apart from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration’s request for democracy assistance in the coming fiscal year is down 1.5 percent from the current year.
Trister acknowledges that it is impossible to measure the impact of the assistance, but she is convinced it pays off. “All over the world, we’re making relationships with civil society groups. We’re bolstering their ability to be part of their government,” she says. “In talking with activists on the ground, they say these programs do have value.”