Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2011
Issue No. 1061
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Reiterating the differences

There have been growing tensions between the US and Egypt over US assistance to pro-democracy groups in the country, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky

Over the last two months, Cairo and Washington have been exchanging accusations over US assistance to pro-democracy groups in Egypt, with the administration of US President Barack Obama last week criticising Egyptian concerns over foreign aid to pro-democracy groups in the country, most of which goes to civil-society groups and the media.

A meeting was held with reporters at the US State Department in Washington, while the director of USAID in Cairo, Jim Bever, unexpectedly quit his job and flew back to Washington.

The US embassy in Cairo denied that the reason behind Bever's sudden departure was the growing tensions between the Egyptian government and the US administration.

"He will return to Washington to take up a unique opportunity as an instructor at the War College to help others throughout the US government learn from his wealth of experience working in the most challenging and fragile environments in the world," said Elizabeth O Colton, a spokesperson at the US embassy in Cairo.

However, a political source in Washington told Al-Ahram Weekly that the current dispute between the two countries over US assistance to pro-democracy groups had played a significant role in cutting short Bever's stay in Cairo, only one year after he had started in the job.

"He was supposed to spend at least three years in this job, which is important in any career in development. It is not easy for him to give up such job," the source said.

In a related development, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland used tough language when criticising attacks in the Egyptian media on newly appointed US ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson as "inaccurate", "unfair" and "unacceptable".

"With regard to this kind of anti-Americanism that's creeping into the Egyptian public discourse, we are concerned," she told a group of reporters, referring to an article in the state-owned Egyptian magazine October on 29 July that had featured a cartoon of Patterson using USAID money to incite the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"We have expressed these concerns to the Egyptian government. We think this kind of representation of the United States is not only inaccurate, it is unfair. We are very strong supporters of Egypt's transition to a democratic future, and we will continue to be there for Egypt," Nuland said.

The back-and-forth between the two governments started in April when Patterson said in her testimony to the US congress before she officially took up the job in Cairo that the US had given $40 million to Egyptian NGOs since the 25 January Revolution.

Last month, the Egyptian minister of state for international cooperation announced that the State Security prosecutor was investigating foreign funding for local NGOs, youth movements and political parties, with the NGOs facing possible charges of harming national security.

"USAID has contributed to Egyptian development needs for more than 30 years, and US taxpayers have over this time financed nearly $30 billion in assistance programmes," a US embassy statement said last Friday after Bever had left the country.

"And yes, the United States has always included in its assistance programmes funding to strengthen and expand Egypt's civil society, including those brave Egyptians struggling for democracy and human rights," the statement said.

The embassy said its aid funding complied with "the strictest standards of transparency and accountability" and that it did not fund political groups.

In March, USAID in Egypt placed advertisements in the Egyptian media inviting civil society organisations in the country to apply for project grants in the fields of human rights, political participation and election monitoring. Hundreds of NGOs applied for the grants.

Another advertisement was posted for NGO projects in economic development, such as in developing small enterprises, fighting poverty and developing agriculture.

The US has already approved $65 million for democracy assistance in Egypt after the country's January Revolution. According to one official in Washington, 80 per cent of this money has been awarded to US contractors to set up capacity- building programmes to assist Egyptian political parties and civil society before the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

However, most of these contractors, among them the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), do not have licences to operate in Egypt, and they are unlikely to obtain them soon.

Moreover, the $65 million democracy assistance programme was approved by the US government without consultation with Cairo, and the money is being distributed directly to NGOs without passing through governmental channels, such as the Ministry of State for International Cooperation.

In a speech in July at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, Major-General Mohamed El-Assar, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), criticised some countries, including the United States, for violating Egyptian law in their funding of Egyptian NGOs.

El-Assar said that Egyptians were opposed to "foreign interference", adding that "it is a matter of national sovereignty."

A group of Egyptian political parties including the Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserist Parties have also criticised US funding of local NGOs and political parties. Wafd leader El-Sayed El-Badawi has said on various occasions both before and after the January Revolution that his party rejects interference in Egypt's internal affairs, including foreign democracy assistance.

According to Egyptian law, foreign funding can only be received by registered civil society organisations, and NGOs receiving foreign funding must notify the authorities.

"The problem is that there has been a misunderstanding about US democracy assistance," said Bassem Samir, an activist. "These are not grants for political parties, and the US may not fund any foreign political parties. The assistance is for NGOs to set up training programmes for party members."

Samir said that the law on NGOs had been used in the past to ensure that civil society was under state control and that the SCAF was also using the law for that purpose.

In an interview with Al-Ahram, US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman said that the US provided training courses in capacity- building for Egyptian political parties in order to facilitate the creation of a free society.

"We do not give the political parties bags of money. We only provide training and capacity- building programmes that help Egyptians to create an open and democratic system," Feltman said.

Feltman admitted that there were disagreements between the Egyptian and US governments, saying that this was not unusual between friends.

"Washington respects Egypt's sovereignty and is ready to work with whatever political forces Egyptians choose for the coming elections," he said, adding that the US "does not choose the winners of the elections, the Egyptian people does."

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