Commentary: Egypt loves and hates foreign aid

The criminal trial of 16 Americans and 27 others will start Feb. 26 on charges they ran unlicensed foreign aid programs aimed at overthrowing the Egyptian government or increasing U.S. influence in the country.

The aid groups, funded by the U.S. Congress, had been given $60 million to teach Egyptians to form political parties, monitor elections, issue press releases, formulate party platforms and do grassroots organizing.

Officials from the four U.S. democracy groups say they offered their training to every stripe of political view so long as it did not train those who advocated violence or intolerance towards minorities.The groups had applied for operating permission years ago but never received them. Why the sudden clampdown?

A power vacuum has formed in Egypt — the largest Arab nation with 80 million people. Following the Arab Spring of January last year, President Hosni Mubarak resigned, the army took over and parliamentary elections installed an Islamic majority. Everyone in Egypt fears chaos from mobs of young people rioting at soccer games, burning down the state archives and trying to invade the interior ministry.

“The army is terrified,” said one observer. They fear that if and when they hand over real power to the Islamists in Parliament, the military leaders could be tried alongside Mubarak and could lose control over vast commercial investments.

The army also might be ordered to enforce highly unpopular Islamic laws and deal with unrest they spawn such as attacks on Christians, secular Egyptians and other minorities.

So into this stew of fears, violence and struggles for power, walk the American version of the Children’s Crusade: honorable American aid workers raised in the heady vapors of America’s combative democracy (see Santorum, Romney, Gingrich). The staff from the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists, offered the forbidden wine of democratic tools to mostly liberal, young, educated and modernized elites.

But these Egyptian liberals find little traction in the towns and villages of rural Egypt where the long beards, robes and calloused foreheads from prayer mats have long been the voice of authority. The liberals were unable to even run candidates outside of Cairo’s better districts.

Haven’t we seen this before? In Russia in 1917, the liberal middle class got rid of the Tsar but were later eaten and digested in the prisons and gulags of Lenin and Stalin. In Iran, the middle class joined protests to oust the Shah but soon found themselves pushed off the ruling platform by the mullah-ocracy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In Cuba and Nicaragua, liberals helped overthrow Batista and Somoza only to find themselves in jail or on rafts as hard-line leftists took power.

Egypt now stands at a crossroad and it is likely that as chaos and crime and violent protests continue, people will support a firm hand to restore order — either the ideological dogma of the Brotherhood or the pragmatic authoritarian rule of the military.

Into the breach comes the voice of accusation, nationalism and rabble-rousing — Fayza Abul Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation — who accused the 16 Americans and 27 Egyptians and others of plotting to destabilize Egypt and turn it into a democratic satrapy of devilish U.S., Israeli and Jewish interests. She wants all aid money to go through her office to non-government organizations likely to do the bidding of the government. The only cabinet holdover from Mubarak’s rule, Abul Naga can jeopardize U.S. relations with Egypt because there is a power vacuum and no one — not the Islamists nor the Army — wants to be seen squelching the fiery woman who took on the deeply resented United States.

You see, even after $26 billion in foreign aid since 1979 — military and civilian — Egyptians have a bad taste in their mouths. When asked, they say four things about U.S. aid:

— They know nothing about U.S. aid

— Any aid was stolen by the government

— US aid pays Egypt for peace with Israel or other U.S. policy

— It is a shame Egypt needs aid.

None said thanks, or it’s been helpful.

In fact, I have visited U.S. funded clinics where Egyptian women get free medical care and medicine. They also get family planning which is approved by local clerics who tell families Islam approves of contraception to space children and protect women’s health. I’ve visited schools where U.S. aid helps bright Egyptian children use computers and the library is full of books in English and Arabic.

Even the subterranean sewer system that carries away the wastes of one of the world’s largest cities was built by USAID.

But U.S. aid teams found that advertising the U.S. aid program made Egyptians feel diminished. So the clinics and schools minimize mention of U.S. aid and instead tout the Egyptian ministries of health and education as responsible for the programs. As a result, Egyptians are uninformed about the vast U.S. aid program — largest in the world before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We helped millions to a better life but won few hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, American Congressmen are calling for the $1.6 billion in annual aid to be cut unless Egypt stops prosecution of the 19 American aid workers.

In response, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader in Congress, Mohammad Morsi, has said that if U.S. aid is cut, the parliament will cancel the peace treaty with Israel. He is talking about adding more soldiers to Sinai than the treaty allows. Seems small but the buildup of Egyptian troops in Sinai led to the 1967 war.

I am sure the Egyptian military will not be happy about a return to a hostile relationship with Israel. Egypt suffered terrible losses in every war since 1948. Since the 1979 Camp David Accords were signed, the peace on the Eastern frontier allowed the military and the country to invest in peace and in commerce.

But if the military carry out their promise to hand over power to civilians in the summer, and a constitution is adopted and a president is appointed, the decision on relations with Israel will be in the hands of bearded, narrow-minded men convinced they speak for God. This is exactly what I feared a year ago when these Arab Spring uprisings began to shake the old guard from power.

Ten of the Americans are abroad but six are still in Cairo. They are barred from leaving Egypt and three of them, including the son of the U.S. Transportation Secretary are holed up in the US Embassy. This is a delicate moment that could be tweaked by rabble-rousers to alienate America from Egypt and from Israel.

The challenge is to work with a cool head and cooler heart to support the aid workers and still show respect for Egypt’s struggle to define its way forward.

Clarification: The International Center For Journalists is funded by private donors with about one-third of its funding coming from the U.S. government (State Dept., USAID). The ICFJ is a non-profit organization designed to promote quality journalism worldwide.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.