U.S. offers aid for Egyptian democracy, but quietly

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
By Kathy Lally and Mary Beth Sheridan
Sunday, March 6, 2011

CAIRO - For years, the United States tried to offer democracy-building help here but was thwarted by an Egyptian government that was committed to the opposite.

Now that the old prohibitions have been swept away by revolution, Egyptians are desperate to build their democracy, and quickly. The United States has expertise to offer and money to help, but it must proceed more carefully than ever among a people wary of U.S. intentions.

"Help from America can be misunderstood," said Tarek el-Malt, a spokesman for the al-Wasat political party, which has no real headquarters, no way to reach voters and no plans to ask for U.S. assistance.

A high-powered delegation of U.S. officials visited Cairo last month to find ways to support the revolution. They, along with diplomatic and development officials, have been working quietly, meeting with residents, activists and the leadership, and asking how best to spend the $150 million that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said would soon be available to help shore up the economy and provide technical assistance in the move toward democracy.

By the time the U.S. delegation departed, no Egyptian pro-democracy organizations had asked for assistance.

Egyptians are deeply ambivalent about help from America. State-run media have encouraged anti-foreign feelings, and most U.S. aid in the past has gone to the military, which many Egyptians have interpreted as unambivalent U.S. support for a regime that oppressed them.

In an Internet exchange with Clinton on Feb. 23, Egyptian young people asked hard questions about U.S. support for the regime at the expense of the people. "We consistently spoke out for democracy," she said, suggesting that many of those conversations were private.

A history of influence

American organizations, among them the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, have worked here for years, despite the determined opposition of the Egyptian government. Both say the relationships they have built will make civic groups receptive to their offers of political expertise, such as training parties on honing a message and observers on monitoring elections.

Neither organization has ever been granted official permission to operate here, although they have been asking the Egyptian government since 2006.

Feeling stymied, the IRI circumvented the barrier over the past few years by taking aspiring politicians and activists, now numbering 1,000, to training seminars in nearby countries or organizing tours for them to the United States. Participants were invariably punished for participating, pilloried in the media through campaigns organized by the government.

Last year, the IRI invited promising candidates for parliament to its sessions. The elections turned out as rigged as ever and almost none of the candidates got on the ballot.

The NDI worked quietly inside the country, connecting with civic groups and offering them basic information, such as manuals on how to run a political campaign. Secret police were - and still are - posted outside the NDI office. Staff members have been regularly called in for interrogation and telephoned, threateningly, at home and late at night. Long newspaper articles derided them as insincere democrats, here to make money and corrupt the young people.

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