If there’s one thing you might think American officials could agree on about the troubled Middle East these days, it’s the importance of backing private-sector entrepreneurs in Egypt. After all, these are the people who could get the Egyptian economy moving again and help reduce the military’s political control.
But Washington is the place where good ideas like this wind up dead. And so the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund, a widely praised bipartisan initiative, is on the ropes because of a congressional “hold” on legislation pledging the fund $60 million for this fiscal year. The fund is about to make its first major investment, one that could give heart to Egyptians who want to rebuild their economy after revolution and counter-revolution. But unless the hold is lifted soon, the investment effort may unravel.
The main obstruction, strangely enough, is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), someone who has been an outspoken supporter of Egyptian democracy. “Sen. Graham has placed a hold on these funds, and until he sees Egypt moving toward democracy, he will continue to restrict funding,” said a spokesman.
Now, if this were a question of reducing spending for weapons to the Egyptian military, Graham’s opposition might make sense. But in this case, he’s hurting precisely the business people who could stand up to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the generals who toppled them.
Puzzled by Graham’s move, I spoke with him this week. “You can’t grow the economy” now, while the military has power, he argued. “This is a power grab by the military. It’s unsustainable.” He’s surely right that Egypt’s generals have overreached. But the return to full civilian rule won’t be aided by denying capital to new businesses. Quite the opposite.
If Graham wants to follow through on his laudable goal of advancing Egyptian democracy, he should lift the hold on the Enterprise Fund—and insist that the Egyptian government expand its outreach to all citizens, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The politics of brinksmanship is bad enough when applied to the domestic economy; surely we don’t want to make it a principle of foreign policy, too.