James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Should the United States Still Give Egypt Foreign Aid?

by James M. Lindsay
February 6, 2012

A demonstrator carries an Egyptian flag near Tahrir square where demonstrators gathered to mark the first anniversary of Egypt's uprising on January 25, 2012. (Asmaa Waguih/courtesy Reuters) A demonstrator carries an Egyptian flag near Tahrir square where demonstrators gathered to mark the first anniversary of Egypt's uprising on January 25, 2012. (Asmaa Waguih/courtesy Reuters)

What if you want to give foreign aid but the intended beneficiaries say they don’t want it?

That’s the dilemma the Obama administration faces right now in the Middle East. Two weeks ago, the State Department announced it planned to provide “more immediate benefits” to the Egyptian people. Washington would redirect non-urgent aid originally earmarked for other countries to Egypt to fund quick-impact projects. The idea is to help the most populous and influential country in the Arab world make the difficult transition from autocratic rule to a successful and prospering democracy.

According to a Gallup poll just out, however, most Egyptians don’t want America’s help. Seven in ten Egyptians say they oppose U.S. economic aid to Egypt; three-quarters oppose Washington’s efforts to fund Egypt’s civil society (i.e., pro-democracy) groups.  But Egyptians aren’t flatly opposed to foreign aid. By a margin of five-to-four they favor taking aid from international institutions, and they favor taking aid from other Arab countries by nearly the same margin that they oppose American aid.

In all, the Gallup poll results point to a broader problem for U.S. foreign policy and one that has been inevitable from the moment that Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power: the Egyptian people are suspicious of U.S. motives and policies. Most Egyptians believe that Mubarak’s government was too close to Washington and too eager to do its bidding. They want a more distant relationship from the United States.

The Egyptian people just might get their wish for less U.S. aid. The Egyptian government’s decision to prosecute American and other foreign democracy activists, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is not going over well in Washington. Already some in Congress, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Appropriations panel on State and Foreign Operations, have threatened to retaliate for the prosecution by withholding some if not all of the more than $1.5 billion the United States gives to Egypt each year.

With any luck, cooler heads will prevail in a dispute that doesn’t serve either country’s long-term interests. Nonetheless, the aid relationship will be a touchy one for years to come. Egyptians have their grievances, and Americans will be understandably upset if the beneficiaries of their hard-earned tax dollars aren’t thankful.

But as I have discussed before, gratitude isn’t the primary objective of U.S. foreign aid. Washington doles out aid primarily based on calculations about how to advance U.S. strategic interests. And the United States certainly has great interests at stake in how Egypt’s political transition plays out even if it doesn’t have a lot of influence over where it ends up. Insulating the U.S. aid relationship from the vagaries of politics in both countries will be a challenge for months to come.

What do you think the chances are that U.S. aid for Egypt will continue over the next five years?

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  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    US strategic interests may not be Egyptian interests. It appears, according to Mr. Lindsay, that Egyptians have little appetite for being bribed these days. It’s not like people haven’t caught on to what Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute do. Congressman Ron Paul called these organizations on the carpet before Congress in 2004. In an essay entitled “US Hypocrisy on Ukraine,” Paul complained that the United States was funneling millions of dollars through these organizations to support a particular Ukranian political candidate.
    “How did this one-sided U.S. funding in Ukraine come about?” asks Paul. “While I am afraid we may have seen only the tip of the iceberg, one part that we do know thus far is that the U.S. government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), granted millions of dollars to the Poland-America-Ukraine Cooperation Initiative (PAUCI), which is administered by the U.S.-based Freedom House.”
    Paul then cites two other organizations now involved in the Egyptian situation:
    “We do not know how many millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) sent to Ukraine through NED’s National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.”
    These virtual arms of the U.S. State Department have an established track record for meddling in the electoral politics of other countries. It is a great surprise that they are allowed to operate in the some hundred countries they boast having a presence in . Egypt should be applauded for having the spine to indict people from these organizations, which are allegedly involved in illegal activities. The purpose of foreign aid may indeed be, not to help, but to impoverish countries by pursuading their governments to adopt policies that are not in their interests. Hopefully in five years, Egypt will be a more prosperous country without American foreign aid.

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