Aiding and Abetting Egyptian Repression

The time of year has again arrived when the U.S. Congress considers funding levels for foreign aid. But this year is different. Democrats control a majority in both the House and Senate and, for the first time in more than 12 years, will have the opportunity to set the agenda on this critical issue.

2007 has seen a continued deterioration in the political situation in the Middle East. Democrats have been preoccupied with a contentious debate on Iraq war funding, which has split the caucus in recent weeks. But beyond the war, 2007 has also been marked by the resurgence of Arab autocrats, who have strengthened their grip on power, and embarked on a sometimes brutal campaign against their opponents. There is no longer any "Arab spring" to speak of. Most troubling is the unfolding situation in Egypt, one of America's closest allies in the region and the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid.

Since January, the regime of longtime President Hosni Mubarak has unleashed an unprecedented wave of repression on opposition parties and civil society. The regime has recently focused much of its ire against the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in parliament (it holds 88 seats), imprisoning hundreds of its members and freezing the group's financial assets. The smaller secular and liberal parties, such as the Al-Ghad party and the Kifaya movement, have been similarly crushed.

Indeed, Egypt is in crisis -- and the United States certainly bears some responsibility for this state of affairs. It seems like an eternity now, but as recently as two years ago, the Bush administration was putting sustained pressure on Egypt (as well as other Arab dictatorships) to move forward with political reform. But the so-called "forward strategy for freedom" was short-lived. As Islamist parties began making electoral gains throughout the region, and as it became increasingly consumed by worsening situations in Iraq, Iran, and the Palestinian territories, the Bush administration took a realist turn and de-prioritized democracy promotion. No one has been more aware of this shift than Arab autocrats themselves, who have taken full advantage.

The Bush administration has abandoned Arab democrats. Pro-democracy activists, who daily face the risk of persecution and imprisonment, are calling for help. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger, writes: "How much is enough to make Americans question why their money goes to support this government? We Egyptians want a fair struggle for our freedom. We'll never have it as long as Mubarak and his corrupt regime are propped up by U.S. aid. All we ask is: Give us a fighting chance."

How will Americans respond? Congress now has an opportunity to step in and take a more proactive role in support of Arab democracy. With the upcoming debate over the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, the House can send a strong message to the Egyptian regime that Americans will not turn a blind eye to Egyptian repression. Reducing aid to Egypt, or making aid conditional on reform (in my view the better option), are not novel ideas. There have been efforts in the past to use aid to Egypt as leverage for change.

An amendment to last year's foreign ops bill, sponsored by Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin, would have reduced aid to Egypt by $100 million, but was defeated in a close 225-198 vote. Under guidance from the supposedly freedom-loving Bush administration to oppose any aid cuts, only 45 Republicans voted for the amendment, compared to 153 Democrats. Despite popular perceptions that say otherwise, Democrats have demonstrated, not just in rhetoric but in action, that they are much more serious about using the appropriations process to encourage democratic reform abroad. Now that Democrats control the House, they have the votes they need to either reduce aid to Egypt or propose a system of conditionality that will hold the country's leaders accountable. The question is whether, with Iraq demanding so much attention, the Democratic leadership will do the right thing and demonstrate the party's commitment to promoting peaceful democratic change in the Middle East. Without clear support and direction from Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, it is unlikely that decisive action on aid to Egypt will be taken.

This time, the timing may be right. There is a growing realization that the Mubarak regime has repeatedly failed to live up to its promises of opening up its political system and respecting opposition rights. Last month, in a possible sign of things to come, the public relations firm Bannerman and Associates dropped the Egyptian government as a client.

However, in the wake of Iraq one also sees endless reports of dimming support for efforts to promote Middle East democracy among policymakers and experts in Washington, D.C. Some argue that the support of friendly Arab dictators is needed to promote regional "stability." Yet the fact is that Egypt is less stable now than it was in the early 1980s. Today, no one is quite sure what will happen when President Mubarak, 79, passes away. There is no vice president or any institutionalized mechanism for succession. The likely forced succession of Mubarak's son Gamal will not pass uncontested, and may open the door for greater radicalization.

Egypt, like much of the Middle East, is a powder keg. An increasingly unpopular regime seeks to hold power at any cost, even if the cost is violent confrontation. To deflect attention from domestic woes and the lack of any real reform, Mubarak and his handlers have shown little hesitation in stoking anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism among the populace. But this can last only so long. Ultimately, as legitimate channels for political expression are closed, Egyptians will be more likely to turn to violent methods to communicate their grievances.

The situation is a dire one, and likely to get worse through the benign neglect of the Bush administration. Proactive measures are necessary, and the Democrats are well-positioned to play a critical role in reassessing an approach to foreign aid that has for too long given friendly autocrats a blank check, to no one's benefit.

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