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As we examine the Fiscal Year 2014 budget and appropriations for the Middle East and North Africa, the challenges are daunting. The political transitions underway in the region have encountered considerable difficulties that threaten the democratic progress made since 2011. And in the United States, any discussion of appropriations must consider the extraordinarily tight budget climate that has resulted from sizable cuts across the board due to the federal sequester.
In this environment, the Obama administration has admirably worked to prioritize, maintain, and increase funding to the region. But support for democracy in the Middle East is not only about budget numbers. If programming to support democracy, governance, and human rights is to be successful, it must be accompanied by clear political support and be integrated with policy. President Obama articulated this in May 2011, when he committed to supporting democratic principles in the Middle East with “all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.” Regrettably, the administration’s policies have not reflected that approach. While maintaining levels of funding, the administration has failed to develop effective strategies for supporting democracy in transitioning countries and has failed to meaningfully push for reform in countries where authoritarian allies remain in place.
- The U.S. administration deserves credit for marshaling considerable resources for the Middle East and North Africa amid a very difficult budget environment.In spite of a restricted budget climate due to sequestration, the administration was also able to pull together large-scale resources over the past two years, including efforts to respond to the political transition in Tunisia (more than $350 million), a humanitarian crisis in Yemen (more than $600 million), and humanitarian and refugee crises in Syria and neighboring countries (more than $1.3 billion).
- The U.S. administration lacks a clear vision or strategy for supporting democracy, governance, and human rights in the region. While the U.S. has been able to garner large assistance packages for countries in transition, the goals of those packages are not clearly developed, and are generally reactive in nature. Democracy and governance programs are widely perceived to be more divorced than ever from U.S. policy goals in the region, and support of funding independent civil society organizations in the region is inconsistent. Surprisingly, the administration appears to be even more unwilling to take actions that may antagonize allied governments in the region than was the case before the 2011 uprisings.
- The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has rapidly lost its institutional identity and voice. Over the past two years, MEPI has become viewed as excessively cautious, conservative, and bureaucratic. Its weakening pro-reform voice on policy debates within the State Department is likely to diminish further as it is integrated into the Office of Middle East Transitions. Overall, these moves are expected to reduce MEPI’s comparative advantage in the view of Congressional appropriators.
- The U.S. assistance relationship with Egypt is outdated and no longer effective in serving U.S. interests, but Congress appears willing to assert itself and attempt to rectify this. Despite the $1.55 billion in annual aid to Egypt, the U.S. administration has simply been unable and unwilling to use aid as leverage to influence actors in Egypt. In addition, the makeup of U.S. aid to Egypt is a relic from another era. The U.S. aid package has simply not adapted to meet the country’s new economic, political, and security challenges. In the absence of leadership from the administration, Congress will likely seek to impose its own strategy in Egypt.
- U.S. support for the political transitions in Tunisia and Libya has been severely undermined by the fallout from attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. Those attacks had an immediate chilling effect on U.S. engagement with both countries. Embassy staff and personnel evacuations out of both countries left respective embassies short-staffed for most of the past year. Frustration with the responses of the Libyan and Tunisian governments to the attacks has eroded Congressional support for and threatened long-term assistance programs to those countries.
- The Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund (MENA IF) has not been funded, and is unlikely to resurface in next year’s budget request from the administration. After two years of failed budget requests for MENA IF, many Hill staffers argue that the State Department was never effective in explaining the details of the Fund, the reasons why it was needed, or why it was a priority. Furthermore, some appropriators prefer the case-by-case oversight involved in reprogramming excess funds from existing accounts rather than creating a large, new “slush fund” for the State Department.
Stephen McInerney is Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He previously served as POMED’s Advocacy Director from 2007 to 2010. He has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa, including graduate studies of Middle Eastern politics, history, and the Arabic language at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including BBC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and CBS News.
Cole Bockenfeld is the Director of Advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He has studied the Middle East at the University of Arkansas, Georgetown University, and Al al-Bayt University in Mafraq, Jordan. Prior to joining POMED, he worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) on electoral assistance programs in Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and the West Bank and Gaza, including fieldwork in Beirut and Baghdad. He also conducted research with the Center for Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Amman. His writing on Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy has been published by Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, and The Daily Star. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including the New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe, and Al-Jazeera English.
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