Egyptions are wary that US financial aid to government and civil society programs is Washington's way of whitewashing its past support for Mubarak – and laying the groundwork for future meddling.
CAIRO - As Egypt prepares for its first free and fair parliamentary elections in decades, the United States is keen to play a role in -- and help finance -- the transition to democracy. But some Egyptians are growing increasingly critical of such open American support for building political parties and civil society.
"There are development partners that have for some time now been pushing the democracy and human rights agenda," says Talaat Abdel Malek, an advisor to the Ministry of International Cooperation, which overseas foreign aid. "And I understand the need for it, but there comes a point when there is something that is called national sovereignty that has to be respected."
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is leading the campaign. It recently gave about 40 percent of its $155 million aid budget for Egypt to so-called "democracy and governance" programs. Part of the money money will go directly to Egyptian civil society groups, while the rest will be delivered to US democracy-promotion organizations.
The program for political parties includes training sessions covering topics like political messaging, volunteer recruitment, the use of polling data, and political mobilization.
Nonetheless, some worry the program is a way for Washington to push its foreign policy agenda in Egypt and maintain close ties with Cairo even after their ally, former President Hosni Mubarak, was ousted.
Influential Islamist columnist Fahmy Howeidy wrote that the U.S. administration has been pouring millions of dollars into Egypt every month to "buy off" allegiances of certain political parties and pro-democracy NGOs.
"US democracy funding is designed to serve a specific political agenda which has nothing to do with supporting real democracy in Egypt," Howeidy wrote on June 25 in his column in the independent Shorouk newspaper.
"I think it is unfortunate that those perceptions are as pervasive as they are in Egyptian society," Steven McInerny, executive director of the U.S.-based NGO Project on Middle East Democracy told Al-Masry Al-Youm by phone from Washington. "I think that one of the best ways to deal with that is to be open and transparent about the activities, so that it is not something that is secretive and clandestine that encourages suspicion."
While US organizations are quick to dismiss claims that they have an agenda, an October 2007 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Cairo to the State Department shed light on the view of democracy and governance programming at the time.
The cable, which was published by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks in June, says: "we will sustain successful programs and create additional on-shore initiatives to optimize American influence through the looming leadership succession."
But these suspicions are only part of the problem. USAID faces considerable challenges in navigating Egypt's restrictive NGO laws when it comes to financing democracy and governance programming.
The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, two of the biggest players in democracy and governance programming, are not legally registered with the Ministry of International Cooperation, which is a requirement if they are to legally obtain funding.
Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga, one of the few members of Mubarak's cabinet who remains in power, has been highly critical of USAID's efforts. "I am not sure at this stage we still need somebody to tell us what is or is not good for us — or worse, to force it on us," Aboul Naga told the The Wall Street Journal in June.
The US official, however, contested the notion that USAID or other programs are working behind the Egyptian government's back. "We do tell them everything," the official said.