Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 March 2005
Issue No. 733
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

US throws $1 million into the fray

Outgoing US Ambassador David Welch stunned political watchers by announcing a new $1 million US grant for NGOs aiming to monitor this year's presidential and parliamentary elections. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Before leaving Cairo for Washington, where he is to take on the post of assistant US secretary of state, American Ambassador to Egypt David Welch made a bombshell announcement. At a 3 March press conference, Welch revealed that the US government had decided to provide six Egyptian civil society NGOs with $1 million in financial grants.

Atop this NGO list is the controversial Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, whose chairman is prominent sociologist and activist Saadeddin Ibrahim. Ibrahim spent more than a year behind bars before being exonerated in 2003 on charges related to election monitoring activities. His incarceration sparked a crisis in Egyptian-US relations, with Washington withholding $350 million in assistance aimed at softening the blow of a 2001 UN embargo on Iraq on Egypt's economy.

Welch said the new grants were geared towards achieving what US President George Bush said about Egypt being "the great and proud nation... which showed the way towards peace in the Middle East... now show[ing] the way towards democracy."

The grants, he said, were offered in response to Egyptian ideas for democracy-building activities, which the six civil society NGOs had submitted to the US Embassy. Other than Ibn Khaldun, these NGOs include the United Group, the Egyptian Association for Developing and Disseminating Legal Awareness, the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy, the New Horizons Association for Social Development, and the Alliance for Arab Women.

Ibn Khaldun will use the money to support political and electoral rights -- the same kind of activity that led to Ibrahim's woes in the summer of 2000, just three months prior to parliamentary elections. Last December, Ibrahim announced that his centre planned to monitor parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005, whatever the legal cost. He has also said he plans to run against President Hosni Mubarak.

Twenty human rights NGOs told Reuters on 6 March that they would be monitoring Egypt's parliamentary and presidential elections this year.

This dynamic is certain to cause friction in light of parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour's announcement last week -- while hammering out the details of Mubarak's 26 February constitutional amendment proposal -- that the People's Assembly plans to criminalise political parties and NGOs receiving foreign funding to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections or fund election campaigns.

At the press conference, Welch said the US grants are entirely consistent with Egyptian law, and that the Egyptian government had been fully informed of their every aspect. Welch said the US would also be pleased to fund any ideas proposed by representatives of the Egyptian government.

He said USAID Egypt, the American Embassy and the state department would all be monitoring the programmes planned by the six NGOs. "Like any project or proposal, they have to have clear objectives and be completely transparent, and have what we call benchmarks so that we can understand what they are supposed to do," Welch said.

The grants are part of a systematic American effort to implement the US president's Middle East policy, crystallised in early 2004 as what came to be called the Greater Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). "The events of 11 September led to more active US involvement in Egypt and the region," reports the USAID/Egypt Strategic Plan Update for Fiscal Years 2000/2009, which required adjusting USAID Egypt to focus on vital sectors such as education, NGOs, democracy and governance.

The report said USAID funds would be directed to providing citizens with more avenues to participate in political life via improving the legal environment governing political activities, and that electoral system assistance would go towards improving voter registration, training of candidates, and other interventions deemed necessary for this purpose.

USAID programmes, according to the report, would also target reform-minded leaders; promote knowledge of democratic practices such as model parliaments; and facilitate joint democracy programmes between American and Egyptian universities.

Although USAID activities in Egypt will aim to achieve MEPI objectives in the next period, said Mary Ott, deputy director of the USAID Mission in Egypt, the agency has been a main sponsor of civil society activities in Egypt for more than five years, long before the announcement of MEPI in 2004. Ott was at the launch of the USAID-funded Egyptian NGO Support Centre on Sunday.

Welch told Al-Ahram Weekly that the US's decision to provide six Egyptian NGOs with $1 million in funds had absolutely no link to the arrest of Ayman Nour. He said the US has strong concerns about the opposition leader's arrest, which "we have expressed to the government, [who] knows our views."

The ambassador defended his meetings with Nour and other opposition leaders. "I do not believe those meetings have caused anybody any problem. It seems that from time to time there is comment about those meetings, but I consider that a natural role of an American ambassador in any country, and a perfectly natural one here in Egypt."

The Weekly also asked Welch about the veracity of The Los Angeles Times report that Nour's arrest had catalysed the Bush administration into withholding $1 billion in aid disbursement for financial sector reform, of which Egypt would receive $200 million in cash immediately. Welch dismissed the idea that the Nour case had blocked the disbursement of any aid, indicating that the US has been discussing financial reform programmes with Egypt, and that this was progressing positively.

Welch also dismissed the idea that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a scheduled visit to Cairo last week to protest against Nour's arrest. "The fact is," Welch said, "the government of Egypt decided it wanted to do some further consultations about a conference that was planned between the G8 foreign ministers and their counterparts in the Arab League."

The government told him that it would be better to hold the conference after the upcoming Arab summit. "Thus, I consider this conference postponed, not cancelled," Welch said.

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