Egypt’s recent upheaval has rightfully sparked some sharp questions about U.S. foreign aid. This is no small irony since assistance to Egypt and Israel was the one item on the U.S. foreign aid agenda almost no one questioned for decades. Now is a good time for a hard look at how we approach aid to Egypt. But we also need to make sensible decisions going forward and not react impulsively with cuts that could undermine the efforts of a fledgling democracy to find its feet.
Aid to Egypt and Israel has had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and across multiple administrations. It was seen as a cornerstone of support for Middle East peace since the Camp David accords in 1978 despite the fact that Egypt remained a largely authoritarian state with only modest nods toward carefully stage-managed elections. The overwhelming bulk of this assistance was directed for military purposes, not development. Egypt and Israel have remained at peace since Camp David, so one can make the case that this was a reasonable investment.
Egypt has now entered a period of tremendous promise and very real risk. While it might be tempting for some in Washington to pull back from our aid commitments to Egypt, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq make crystal clear the immense costs to our nation when we become involved on the ground after the shooting starts. These costs dwarf any aid program.
The real question for aid to Egypt is now a simple one: Where do we go from here? Some Republicans suggest deep cuts in economic aid to Egypt. This would leave the United States in the rather absurd position of not only cutting aid to a country because they embraced democracy but also cutting the area of assistance most needed to create jobs and better economic conditions, which were a central demand of protestors.
We need to be smart. In the midst of the heated Egypt aid debate here are five principles that we should keep in mind. They should guide our efforts going forward.
Nascent democracies are often the most vulnerable to upheaval and unrest
Study after study demonstrates that young democracies are particularly susceptible to slipping back into violence and chaos. That’s because becoming a true democracy takes much more than an election. It takes capable and open institutions: political parties willing to accept a loss, an impartial judiciary, local government bodies, and an empowered legislature. Helping those institutional changes take root is an immense challenge. And cutting U.S. assistance to Egypt right now would be a textbook example of a knee-jerk reaction that serves our interests as poorly as Egypt’s.
Aid programs work best when they are locally owned
We also should not approach Egypt with a cookie cutter plan dreamed up in Washington, New York, or Brussels that will supposedly make orange trees bloom in the desert. Instead, we need to engage in the slow hard work of genuine consultation with transitional authorities and civil society in Egypt to come up with an assistance plan designed to meet their real needs and aspirations. This plan should include clear benchmarks that measure progress and ensure that assistance is being used accountably and effectively. This dialogue should take place at a senior level and be mindful of the fact that allowing Egyptians to have their voices heard on aid priorities can also help reduce political tensions. Perhaps most importantly for both Egyptians and the Obama administration, we should seek the flexibility to allow substantial sums of the money targeted toward military aid to be converted to civilian purposes such as strengthening the economy and public institutions.
We need to consult, but we also need to be nimble
It is particularly important in fragile states such as Egypt that transitional authorities are able to show results quickly. Otherwise, they risk seeing the high hopes of hundreds of thousands in the street quickly recede back to despair and renewed anger. This means that any U.S. aid program should further include some rapidly disbursing efforts designed to make a real impact in the short term as longer-term efforts tackle things like institutional capacity and sustained economic growth. These rapid disbursement programs don’t need to cost a great deal. But they are essential to maintaining a positive momentum for change. The U.S. ambassador and the aid mission in Cairo should be given the funds, expertise, and authorities they need to deliver modest, high-impact programs in the immediate term.
We need to coordinate with other donors
International donors need to have the discipline to pool their resources and efforts behind a development plan Egyptians put together and support. This fundamental coordination will give the international community greater leverage to demand accountability while freeing Egyptians from the burden of dealing with 17 different international agencies, agendas, and plans.
Political context is crucial
Deciding how we assist a country such as Egypt involves some highly political decisions. We won’t get our approach right unless we make sure that our aid experts are also Egypt experts.
In other words, we need people who can confront questions such as: Should the United States reduce aid to the Egyptian military and put that money into economic growth programs? Should more assistance flow to Cairo or to more outlying areas? Should promoting law and order be given higher priority than promoting agriculture?
Obviously, we want Egyptians to lead their own development so that ultimately they no longer need assistance. But understanding the potential pitfalls along the way and designing programs in ways that support reconciliation and consensus will be hugely important.
In the days and weeks ahead I’m sure we’ll hear a great deal of debate about aid to Egypt. But we should not fool ourselves. If Egypt falls apart or slips toward civil conflict the only question on everyone’s lips in the Beltway will be: “Why didn’t we do more to prevent this from happening?”
The Middle East is undergoing a remarkable, precarious, and uncertain period of change. We need to respond as we did to the historical opportunity of securing greater freedom and stability for the people of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now is the time for America to look forward in the Middle East—not back.
John Norris is Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative.
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