Making More of US Aid to Egypt

Making More of US Aid to Egypt

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Ed. Note: Clashes across Egypt left more than a hundred dead on Wednesday as supporters of ousted leader Mohammed Morsi confronted the nation's military, which has declared a month-long state of emergency. As Washington's influence in Egypt appears to be at an all-time low, political commentator Ghassan Rubeiz says U.S. aid could help return stability to the country, given it's the right kind of aid.

It seems that Americans, especially in Washington, can’t get enough of Egypt right now. The hotly contested ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has left Egypt in a state of political instability and Americans are divided over how to engage.

While many Americans continue to debate the legitimacy of ousting Morsi and what this means for US aid to Egypt, President Barack Obama has avoided passing judgement on Egypt’s most recent political transition. The result is that the United Sates continues to provide aid while publicly encouraging the interim government to revise the constitution and launch fair and free elections.

But is this enough? While trust between the United States and Egypt is at an all-time low, and while there is a limit to the impact the United States can have on Egypt’s domestic political transition, Washington and Egypt have a decades-long relationship, and fair and balanced foreign aid could modestly contribute to resolving the on-going instability and enhance American-Egyptian relations.

But the kind of aid provided matters. Egypt needs more bread than guns.

US foreign aid priorities could shift from military capacity-building to economic development and human rights, in order to better serve the interests of the people of Egypt. The military receives 1.3 of the 1.56 billion dollars of US aid annually, a disproportionate ratio of bullets to butter. Moreover, the military runs a significant portion of the Egyptian economy on the side. Yet history has shown that no military establishment can effectively serve its society when its interests are in conflict with its people’s.

American aid to Egypt must focus on stability, human rights and prosperity. More aid should be given in the form of support for industrial enterprise, educational programs, cultural activity, human rights, building political parties and stimulating dialogue between church, mosque and synagogue.

The image of the donor and the recipient are relevant to the efficacy of aid. In an era of global mass communication, the positive effects of foreign aid are easily neutralized by irresponsible media campaigns both in the Arab world and in the United States.

If foreign aid is structured through a bilateral partnership, American and Egyptian experts could plan development and empowerment programs together. Outcome evaluations could be based on mutually agreed objectives of aid, while evaluators of aid could include Egyptians.

The problem of aid is more than a matter of substance. The political context of foreign aid is also crucial. Washington must better coordinate its foreign policy in the region. If US aid is perceived by Egyptians, who value their pride and self-determination, as an instrument of co-optation and compliance, then it is hard for Washington to build a genuine partnership with Cairo.

The high visibility and dominance of American aid may have a counterproductive effect for the moment. Currently, the interim government and its opposition are nervous about US involvement in Egypt’s domestic politics. Fairness and neutrality help, and therefore the US government should continue to urge both sides to reconcile. At the same time Washington could join the European Union and the Arab League in aid and diplomacy efforts.

To further enhance trust between Washington and Cairo, foreign aid might encourage reciprocity — such as exchange programs in both directions. For example, with regards to educational aid, Egyptian teachers could offer courses in American universities and, reciprocally, American educators could teach and advise in Egypt. Similarly, Americans could start business activities in Egypt while Egyptians could do business in the United States.

The United States could also work with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both major aid contributors, to help them to tie their aid in Egypt to good governance, inclusion of minorities and reconciliation.

The bottom line is that there is a limit to what the United States can do by itself to change the future of Egypt. However, Washington could develop a promising relationship with Cairo by engaging Egyptians in the shaping of aid, participating actively in multilateral instruments while continuing to provide space for Egyptians to decide on the future of their own society and statehood.

A political commentator, Dr Ghassan Rubeiz is the former Secretary of the Middle East of the Geneva- based World Council of Churches.