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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?