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.
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.
“NDI underwent 51 / 2 years of harassment and stuck to it,” said Leslie Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, who was in Cairo recently. “I feel the partners we stuck by are grateful now.”
Even government agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, ran into stiff resistance.
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.