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More than three years have now passed since the Arab world was shaken by popular uprisings that brought a swift end to the rule of four of the region’s longstanding dictators and brought hope that accountable, democratic governments could replace corrupt, repressive regimes across the region. 2011 represented a remarkable moment of hope among supporters of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa—not only hope for political change and progress toward genuine democracy on the ground, but also hope that the dramatic events in the region would spur long- overdue fundamental changes in U.S. policy toward this critical region.
Many advocates of democracy believed long before the 2011 uprisings that U.S. engagement with the region was fundamentally flawed in its reliance on nondemocratic governments across the region. Unconditional support for corrupt governments that maintained stability through repression of their citizens generated strong animosity toward the United States, which became seen in the region as the primary external backer of repressive Middle Eastern governments.
In 2011, those who held these views believed that they had been clearly and indisputably proven right. Successive U.S. administrations had—occasional public rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding— ignored entreaties to focus more on supporting sustainable political and economic reform in the region, but there was a belief in 2011 that these issues could be ignored no longer. Although supporters of democracy had previously failed to convince the U.S. government of the need to change course in the region, there was a belief that the remarkable changes brought by brave citizens of the region standing up to their governments would now force U.S. policy to change despite its reluctance to do so.
Sadly, three years later, those fundamental lessons appear unlearned. There are steadily growing perceptions that the dramatic political changes that erupted in 2011 have had little or no effect on the fundamental approach of the U.S. government to the region, and no significant increase in support for democratic principles has resulted. Unfortunately, an examination of the U.S. federal budget request for Fiscal Year 2015 strongly confirms these perceptions. From examining the trajectory of U.S. assistance to the Middle East and North Africa over the past several years, there is little evidence to suggest that support for democracy, governance, and human rights is now any higher of a priority for the U.S. government than it had been before the uprisings of 2011.
- The administration has largely failed to adapt U.S. assistance or policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in response to the dramatic political changes in the region over the past few years. In general, it is remarkable how little the structure and objectives of U.S. assistance to the region have changed since before the 2011 uprisings. The percentage of U.S. assistance devoted to supporting military and security forces has actually increased since 2010 while the percentage devoted to programming dedicated to democracy and governance has decreased, despite frequent rhetoric from the administration and Congress in 2011 suggesting that the opposite would take place.
- Requests for the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund (MENA IF) has been abandoned by the administration and replaced by a new, much smaller MENA Initiative Fund that emphasizes traditional economic development assistance programs rather than political and economic reform. The MENA IF was initially proposed in 2012 as the administration’s signature $770 million response to the dramatic uprisings and political changes in the region. After failing to attain any funding for the initiative for two years, the administration has given up and shifted toward a new fund that would more closely resemble traditional development programs.
- The establishment of the Near East Affairs Office of Assistance Coordination (NEA/AC) and especially the integration of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) into this office has been met with confusion and suspicion in the democracy community as well as in other parts of the U.S. government. This move is seen as consolidating the trend over the past few years that MEPI has steadily become less distinct from the rest of the NEA bureau and has lost its identity as a distinctly pro-reform supporter of independent civil society. It is also widely viewed as strange that an office coordinating assistance among numerous offices that distribute aid would also house one of those particular offices.
- The U.S. assistance package for Tunisia remains quite small, despite official rhetoric describing the country as “a top priority.” In Fiscal Year 2010, prior to its revolution that ousted Ben Ali, Tunisia was the ninth largest recipient of bilateral U.S. assistance in the region. In the administration’s current request, Tunisia remains the ninth largest recipient in the region. While the administration has marshalled resources from global and multi-country accounts to support Tunisia’s transition, it has failed to adapt the aid package to a more sustainable approach that demonstrates a longer-term commitment.
- The administration has demonstrated no coherent policy toward Egypt, neither regarding the aid package specifically nor more broadly. The U.S. government has struggled desperately to adapt to changing realities in Egypt and has by default attempted to maintain the status quo. There are finally some signs of slowly growing support both inside the administration and within Congress for considering some structural changes to the Egypt aid account, but actual implementation of such changes will be difficult and will require political will that until now has been lacking.
- U.S. support for Yemen, and in particular for democracy and governance programming in Yemen, has increased considerably. U.S. funding to support democracy, governance, and human rights in Yemen has consistently grown, increasing tenfold since 2009. Many politically engaged Yemeni activists do now view the success of Yemen’s national dialogue and its political transition as top priorities for the United States. Perceptions of the United States across Yemen, however, continue to be undermined by extremely unpopular counterterrorism operations including drone strikes. Furthermore, many democracy advocates involved in the political transition process believe that the U.S. is genuinely trying to play an important supportive role, even if they may have specific criticisms of U.S. policy and tactics.
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 Advocacy Director 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 the Washington Post, 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.
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