US training quietly nurtured young Arab democrats
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 12:01 AM
CAIRO -- Hosni Mubarak's woes could be traced back to Egypt's 2005 election, when an army of tech-savvy poll watchers, with a little help from foreign friends, exposed the president's customary "landslide" vote as an autocrat's fraud.
In nearby Jordan, too, an outside assist on election day 2007 helped put that kingdom's undemocratic political structure in a harsh spotlight - and the king in a bind.
And when 2011's winter of discontent exploded into a pro-democracy storm in Tunisia and then Egypt, opposition activist Bilal Diab broke away from his six-month "young leaders school" and its imported instructors, and put his new skills to use among the protest tents of Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"It helped us organize the revolution," Diab, 23, said of his made-in-America training. "People were scattered, but we had learned how to bring them together and we did, and when we opened our tent we announced formation of the Revolution Youth Union."
The revolutionary roar from the Arab street, shaking the palaces of the privileged, toppling presidents, has echoed around the globe, dominating the headlines and airwaves for weeks. But behind this story of political upheaval lies another, quieter story of outside organizations that, with U.S. government and other money, tutored a young Arab generation in the ways of winning in a political world.
All involved emphasize that what has happened sprang from deeply rooted grievances in the autocratic Arab world, not from outside inspiration. But they say the confidence-building work of democratic coaches, led by the U.S. but also including Europeans, was one catalyst for success.
That success, meanwhile, points up a core paradox: A U.S. government that long stood by Mubarak and other Arab leaders as steadfast allies was, at the same time, financing programs that ultimately contributed to his and potentially others' downfall.
Some see American shrewdness at work, covering multiple political bets in Egypt and elsewhere. Others see an America too big and complex to be consistent.
"Speaking as a Canadian, one of the beauties of the U.S. system is that there are many, many entry points in many centers of power, and they can have conflicting policies," said Les Campbell, Middle East chief for the U.S. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
The NDI, affiliated with the Democratic Party, and the GOP-affiliated International Republican Institute (IRI) are links in the nurturing "democratic assistance" web, key conduits for grants from the State Department's Agency for International Development (USAID) and from the National Endowment for Democracy, a private organization funded by the U.S. Congress.
National Endowment money, $100-million-plus a year, is at work in more than 90 countries worldwide. But it's the USAID grants, from an $800 million budget for developing "political competition" and "civil society" in 67 nations, that have proved vital to activists in a half-dozen Arab lands, from Morocco to Yemen. Some $104 million was requested for them in the proposed 2011 budget.
In post-Mubarak Egypt, that help is about to balloon.