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Washington's Pyramid Scheme

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 1, 2009
Newsweek

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(Please note: The Bush administration increased funding from $37 million to approximately $50 million, a 35 percent increase.† The $86.5 million cited in the article was what the Bush administration requested from Congressional appropriators. The author regrets the error.)

Early next month, Barack Obama plans to visit Cairo to address the Muslim world. Egyptians will use the occasion to press him to keep U.S. assistance flowing. There was a time when Egypt-still the second-largest U.S. aid recipient in the world-could have taken such largesse for granted. No longer.

Since 2005, as part of the Bush administration's Middle East democracy drive, Washington has threatened to condition parts of Egypt's $1.7 billion aid package on efforts by President Hosni Mubarak to pursue political reform, and has diverted much of the $450 million in economic support to good-governance programs. But neither the threats nor the diversions have improved Egypt's politics much, nor are they likely to. If the United States really wanted to help Egyptians, it would spend its money on programs that actually improve their daily lives. Such technical help would, paradoxically, do more to support democratic change than anything else in Washington's tool kit.

Clumsy democracy promotion often does little good and can even make matters worse-not just in Egypt but in other authoritarian systems resistant to reform. Between 2004 and 2007, the Bush administration increased the share of the economic aid for Egypt it devoted to democracy and governance by 133 percent, from $37 million to $86.5 million-or about a fifth of its entire annual economic-aid package to Cairo. But these raises came at the expense of programs devoted to agriculture, the environment, health care and infrastructure development, which experienced funding cuts ranging from 44 to 100 percent. As a result, some wildly successful programs were eliminated, such as one that helped improve the lot of impoverished rural farmers. In their place, Washington implemented new programs, like one to run political-reform conferences for Egypt's regional governors-a futile endeavor, given that these individuals answer only to Mubarak and that more than half of them are police or military officers.

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