Monday, June 01, 2009

Steven A. Cook: US Democracy Aid to Egypt Makes Things Worse

From Newsweek International (ht MESHnet):
Given the intransigence of Mubarak's regime, the United States would receive the best return on its investment if it shifted its Egypt aid back to technical areas like agriculture, pre- and postnatal health and disease prevention—a particularly pressing need in a country with the highest incidence of hepatitis C in the world. Polls have shown that Egyptians hate being lectured to by outsiders, and there is no better way to win hearts and minds than to help ensure the health of babies born in the desperately poor neighborhoods of Cairo. As surveys and focus groups consistently demonstrate, if people in the Arab world want anything from America, it's the kind of technical assistance that makes a tangi-ble difference in their daily lives. And a healthier, wealthier and better-educated Egyptian population is more likely to start demanding personal and political freedoms—the kind of demands that may, someday, actually lead Egypt to democratize and sustain it when it does.

Reducing the emphasis on democracy-promotion programs will also significantly reduce tensions between Washington and Cairo that sharpened under President Bush. For all of its shortcomings, Egypt remains a critically important U.S. ally. Cairo has been very helpful (albeit discreetly) in efforts to fuel and supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the Obama administration will need Mubarak onboard as it launches a diplomatic effort to forge Palestinian-Israeli peace.

The United States can and should play a constructive role in encouraging change in Egypt and the Middle East. But a lighter touch, and initiatives that actually help people, will serve everyone's interests better than fuzzy preaching about democracy promotion—and programs unlikely to produce much change.