Hariri Center Director Michele Dunne and Senior Fellow Amy Hawthorne reflect on US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in the two years since President Barack Obama promised to make it a top priority to support democracy and human rights in the region.
J. Peter Pham, director the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, was one of four experts invited to address a high-level international conference on the crisis in the Sahel region convened today in The Hague.
Rudolph Atallah, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, testified at a House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on “The Growing Crisis in Africa’s Sahel Region.”
On the heels of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to the United States, Energy & Environment Program Associate Director Mihaela Carstei joins CTV to discuss the Keystone Pipeline project that would transport tar sands oil from Canada and the northern United States to refineries in the Gulf coast of Texas.
Tarek Radwan, associate director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, writes in Welt-Sichten, a German monthly magazine on global development, on the Western response to the crises in Egypt.
The original version of this article was published as a German translation.
Egypt: Revolt and Awakening
By Tarek Radwan
Former presidential candidate and leftist human rights lawyer Khaled Ali told a small group of journalists and activists in Cairo that “the United States’ and European Union’s outrage toward [Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi’s authoritarian policies is a blatant lie.” Indeed, the sentiment of most ordinary Egyptians who attended this lecture on January 1, 2013, continues to be one of skepticism, of Western engagement with the transitioning Arab countries.
One can hardly blame the pervasive pessimism in the context of the Arab transitions to democracy. In the past two years, seismic shifts have altered the political, economic, and geostrategic landscape in a number of countries in the Arab world including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. In each country, with the exception of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the ousted authoritarian regimes have left behind a legacy of corruption and decay that will take decades to repair. In Syria, the mess is likely to be much worse. Although many in the Arab world welcomed Western rhetoric promoting democratic reform, security cooperation, and economic assistance, promises of aid are sorely lacking in both the speed and substance necessary to secure the stable and prosperous societies that the United States and the European Union hope for.
Despite good faith attempts on the part of the United States and the European Union to help Arab Spring countries realize their aspirations, Western policies appear reactive and ad hoc. To be fair, the domestic political and economic environment in the United States and Europe has severely limited the West’s ability to conceive of and implement a robust policy toward Arab countries in transition.
To better understand Western efforts, a brief review of attempts at assistance is necessary. Commentators in various policy circles have written of the confusion the Arab Spring induced at the end of 2010, so it comes as no surprise that the closest thing to an explicit policy statement from the United States did not emerge until President Barack Obama declared a focus on trade not aid and economic reform in a May 2011 speech. Given the economic dimensions of the Arab uprisings, that the focus of any US assistance should lie in the same realm made sense.
The timing of the political explosion in the Middle East, however, caught the State Department off guard in 2011 as it struggled to cope with limited resources already allocated before the Arab Spring became a reality. Notably, the State Department succeeded in creating the Middle East Relief Fund through which Libya and Tunisia could receive nearly $100 million in assistance, and reallocated funds through an already significant Economic Support Fund to Egypt valued at nearly $170 million. Although none of the funding comprised new money, budgetary constraints and domestic politics meant extracting these funds from the US Congress proved difficult.
Learning from this experience, the Obama administration established the MENA Incentive Fund in the 2013 budget, totaling $770 million to ensure greater flexibility and to sidestep congressional approval for future initiatives. This program, however, does not include Syria among countries qualifying for aid—a battle yet to be fought in Washington as Syria continues to devolve into greater bloodshed and a spill-over humanitarian crisis in neighboring countries.
Perhaps the United States’ greatest contribution to transitioning Arab countries includes efforts to encourage investment in the region through $2 billion in loan guarantees to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which set up coordinating bodies in Tunisia and Egypt to develop infrastructure and support small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and support for the $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt. The most significant problems with these generous assistance packages, however, are three-fold: aid provided is woefully inadequate to address the economic deterioration due to political instability, developments in the Arab world occurred at an unprecedented pace requiring regular revision, and aid is only rhetorically conditional on serious political reform. In other words, although both the US and EU aid is conditional on support for democracy and human rights, trade and security remain the top priority. Regrettably, this ambivalence undermines the development of institutions that support a pluralistic and representative government.
Historically, democracy promotion in the Middle East (at least in rhetorical terms) has been a top priority for various American administrations. Obama’s ambitious New Beginning address to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009 touched on that same point. Yet, in the aftermath of the uprisings, there was little substantive support for the idea. The rise of Islamist political forces in the transition countries (none more evident than in Egypt) further complicates the imperative for democratic reforms, especially for the United States when faced with the classic struggle between protecting its interests and promoting its values. Despite fierce debate in Washington, US policymakers repeatedly chose to support the security sector, even if it meant turning a blind eye to authoritarian crackdown on basic civil and political rights. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring yielded little change to calculations that ultimately protect US military and trade interests. Policy groups, human rights organizations, and a few courageous politicians, for all the risk it could entail, continue to push for the Obama administration to support liberal ideas in transitioning countries to ensure and protect both its values and interests.
Various international relations crises further aggravated the notion that democracy promotion and support for civil society took second place to security concerns. Nearly $70 million was allocated to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt in 2011 to promote political pluralism and support elections monitoring. These dollars, however, were drawn from previously allocated funds in 2010, and further funding has since abated. The criminal case against foreign-funded NGOs that brought US-Egyptian tensions to their highest since the Camp David Peace Accords resulted in lasting repercussions that provided support for critics to oppose additional funds to Egypt. Similarly, the murder of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens by al-Qaeda affiliated extremists in Benghazi in September 2012 (following religiously inspired anti-US riots in Egypt) sparked similar debates in Washington over aid restrictions to Libya. Although Tunisia seems to be following a relatively stable trajectory, the rise of the Islamist Ennahda Party and heightened tensions over constitutional provisions worries US policy makers, particularly those fearing an Islamist takeover. It is evident that the Obama administration can hardly match the pace of political developments in the region, or its fallout. The US tendency to focus on central power brokers like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and, the Transitional National Council (the predecessor to the current government) in Libya, as opposed to engaging equally with a plurality of voices that have found political space, is a tendency that has yet to be broken. To its credit, US engagement in the Tunisian transition has been markedly more multilateral, offering hope that policy debates in Washington are better adapting to new realities in transitioning countries.
Europe, on the other hand, found its voice in response to the Arab Spring earlier than the United States—but its approach did not differ significantly. In March 2011, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and the European Commission proposed a Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean. The 3 Ms plan outlined the framework within which Europe would engage with the rapidly changing region, emphasizing money, mobility, and markets. In essence, the European Union pledged nearly €7 billion in loans budgeted for grant support by May 2011, coordinated additional assistance through the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and devised flexible mechanisms for disbursement focusing on differentiation and incentives for best performers (coined more for more). The European Union also pledged a major expansion of university scholarships, visa facilitation, readmission agreements, and improved market access and support for SMEs. The inclusion of a civil society component to assistance is one of the most important aspects for monitoring and implementation to support capacity building, strengthen non-state actors, and promote an inclusive, dialogue-based approach to reform.
However, despite the best efforts of the various coordinating bodies within the EU, the strength of its commitment relies on those of its member states. So long as national priorities trump collective initiatives that address the transition countries, with little accountability, EU assistance will remain an ephemeral promise that is not as reliable as it could be. Spain exerted considerable effort to prioritize assistance to southern Mediterranean states, but faced a lack of resources as budgetary cuts to development aid in 2012, and foreign affairs in 2010. Italy’s national priorities include aid Libya (in part to limit illegal migration), but Italy has little interest in providing additional resources to other Arab Spring states.
In the spirit of mutual accountability, many ordinary citizens in Arab countries feel that foreign assistance should be a two-way street that requires a stronger system of accountability of both donor and beneficiary governments. Even as Germany’s development minister Dirk Niebel recently suspended €240 million in aid as a warning against the retreat from democracy in Egypt, Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle spoke positively of the new government, and Chancellor Angela Merkel invited President Mohamed Morsi to Berlin in January of this year. Egyptian activists were not impressed, sensing that Germany prioritized access to the Egyptian market over accountability for the Egyptian government’s deviation from a democratic path. Egyptians jokingly changed the slogan from more for more to more for Morsi.
Nonetheless, the EU model, like that of the United States, is focused on bilateralism in an attempt to tailor assistance to each country. The European Union even exceeds the United States, not only promoting economic liberalization and increased trade, but also answers a revolutionary call for social equality by stressing the importance of inclusive economic development (e.g., Support for Partnership Reform and Inclusive Growth, which allocates €350 million to support job creation initiatives).
US and EU aid emerged slowly but eventually gathered momentum, and illustrates a genuine effort to promote democratic measures and liberal economic reform in a tailored way. Unfortunately, domestic political and economic concerns in the United States and the European Union undermined the efficacy of these policies by limiting the resources and options available to Arab countries, and in turn diminishing its influence over the transitions. Although much remains out of its hands, the West must offer considerably more assistance if it hopes to remain relevant. The United States and the European Union might avert economic collapse and have a stronger hand to prevent a return to authoritarianism by offering greater incentives to comply with democracy-building measures, either through a free trade agreement or by leveraging relations with wealthy Gulf states that have already pledged their support. Anything short of a truly democratic Arab world could have a devastating impact on regional stability and Western interests as a whole.
On May 23, the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security is hosting a panel discussion on new developments in security cooperation among the United States, its European allies, and the Gulf states, and how they are likely to evolve in the coming years.
On May 30, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center will release a new issue brief, The Kaleidoscope Turns Again in a Crisis-Challenged Iran, a discussion of Iran’s upcoming presidential elections.
From June 13-14, the 2013 Wrocław Global Forum will bring together over 350 top policy-makers and business leaders to explore the region’s impact as an actor in Europe, as well as its crucial role in the transatlantic partnership and on the global stage.