Why Egypt Is Angry over $65 Million in US Democracy Grants

Article excerpt

Amid a US campaign to support democratic transition in Egypt, a state-run magazine derided the US 'ambassador from hell' and officials are investigating groups who accepted funding.

The Egyptian government's hostile response to a US initiative to fund pro-democracy groups has strained America's relations with its biggest Arab ally during a critical transitional period for Egypt.

The tension has been building since March, when the US announced plans to distribute $65 million in grants directly to pro-democracy groups. But the angry and wide-ranging response from the Egyptian government and military, which has gone beyond typical Egyptian criticism of American foreign policy, has raised concern in Washington and underscored the challenge the US faces in navigating its relationship with a newly independent Egypt.

"During the Mubarak years, [officials] used anti-American rhetoric for public consumption all the time, and it had no real carryover into the private relationship," says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation who just returned from a trip to Egypt. "But I do think this is significant and different and presents a challenge to how the US can operate in the region in terms of bilateral relations. ... There's real tension, and there's no easy fix for it."

The Egypt director of USAID, the US development agency that has been at the center of the storm here, left Egypt Thursday after less than a year on the job. But Lars Anderson, the agency's spokesman in Washington, said his departure was not related to anti-American sentiment and was for "purely internal reasons."

Top US diplomat portrayed as 'ambassador from hell'

When USAID first publicized plans to distribute the democracy grants, it invited US and Egyptian civil society organizations to apply. USAID held information sessions in Alexandria and Luxor as well as Cairo, providing information on how to apply for grants that would focus on areas like civic awareness and engagement, access to justice, and capacity building for political parties ahead of what are expected to be Egypt's first free elections. In the Egyptian capital, a line of people waiting to get into the session stretched down the block.

Egyptian officials reacted with anger, saying that giving money directly to unregistered civil society organizations, bypassing the Egyptian government, was an affront to national sovereignty. A string of articles in state-run and independent newspapers denounced the foreign funding.

Soon the hostility had widened, with the generals currently in charge of Egypt whipping up xenophobic sentiment and accusing Egyptian activist groups of receiving foreign funding, inciting strife, and harming the nation. The Ministry of International Cooperation, led by Mubarak holdover Fayza Aboulnaga, announced it would investigate the aid recipients, and a judicial official said this week the probe had begun this week. (The ministry said Ms. Aboulnaga was not available to comment this week.)

By the end of July, as the incoming US Ambassador Anne Patterson arrived in Egypt to assume her new post, the cover of a state-run magazine depicted her using a wad of American dollars to light an American bomb in Egypt's iconic Tahrir Square. "The ambassador from hell lights a fire in Tahrir," read the caption.

The US responded publicly to the growing anti-American sentiment this week, saying the personal attacks against Ambassador Patterson were "unacceptable" and it has raised the issue with Egyptian officials.

"With regard to this kind of anti-Americanism that's creeping into the Egyptian public discourse, we are concerned," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at a press conference in Washington. "We think this kind of representation of the United States is not only inaccurate; it's unfair. We are very strong supporters of Egypt's transition to a democratic future, and we will continue to be there for Egypt. …