One USAID-financed program sought to provide civic education to Egyptian schoolchildren. But the Egyptian government balked, returning 60,000 unopened books to the sponsoring organization, according to a 2009 report by the inspector general for USAID.
The United States has spent an average of $2 billion a year here since 1979, viewed as a reward to Egypt for peace with Israel. More than half has gone to military assistance, requiring Egypt to buy American-made equipment. The protesters who stood for democracy in Tahrir Square were shot at with American bullets, gassed with American tear gas and bound by American handcuffs.
Many Egyptians who favor U.S. aid say it should be targeted at the economy and channeled through private organizations rather than the bureaucracy, which is widely accused of corruption.
“Aid should not be used to support power. It should instead be used as an opportunity for real friendship,” said Ahmed el-Naggar, editor in chief of the Economic Strategy Trends Report published by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It should be unconditional, because it otherwise risks being associated with policies rather than with popular needs.”
Most of the $150 million available now, from earlier unspent funds for the country, is intended for economic assistance, including job creation, job training and education. But advocates for democracy programs say that those must be a priority.
Historically, most non-military U.S. aid has gone to the economy. Beginning in 1979, $815 million a year was devoted to infrastructure. Where raw sewage once ran in the streets of Cairo, treatment systems were built. Irrigation systems came to the countryside.
In recent years, nonmilitary U.S. aid was spread among economic, education, health and democracy initiatives. Aid for such areas dropped from about $450 million in 2007 to $250 million in 2011, and the Obama administration has been criticized for reducing pro-democracy assistance.
“We’re in a different place now. There is a firm commitment by this administration to provide assistance in real time to make the democratic transition real and successful,” said Mike Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights.
The immediate priority of U.S. pro-democracy funds, said Dan Brumberg, a Middle East democracy specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, should be to support the development of political parties.
“Political scientists generally agree, when the window of opportunity for parties opens up, it has to be addressed pretty quickly,” he said. “It closes as well.”
Sheridan reported from Washington.