Early next month, Barack Obama plans to visit Cairo to address the Muslim world. Egyptians will use the occasion to press him to keep U.S. assistance flowing. There was a time when Egypt—still the second-largest U.S. aid recipient in the world—could have taken such largesse for granted. No longer.
Since 2005, as part of the Bush administration's Middle East democracy drive, Washington has threatened to condition parts of Egypt's $1.7 billion aid package on efforts by President Hosni Mubarak to pursue political reform, and has diverted much of the $450 million in economic support to good-governance programs. But neither the threats nor the diversions have improved Egypt's politics much, nor are they likely to. If the United States really wanted to help Egyptians, it would spend its money on programs that actually improve their daily lives. Such technical help would, paradoxically, do more to support democratic change than anything else in Washington's tool kit.
Clumsy democracy promotion often does little good and can even make matters worse—not just in Egypt but in other authoritarian systems resistant to reform. Between 2004 and 2007, the Bush administration increased the share of the economic aid for Egypt it devoted to democracy and governance by 133 percent, from $37 million to $86.5 million—or about a fifth of its entire annual economic-aid package to Cairo. But these raises came at the expense of programs devoted to agriculture, the environment, health care and infrastructure development, which experienced funding cuts ranging from 44 to 100 percent. As a result, some wildly successful programs were eliminated, such as one that helped improve the lot of impoverished rural farmers. In their place, Washington implemented new programs, like one to run political-reform conferences for Egypt's regional governors—a futile endeavor, given that these individuals answer only to Mubarak and that more than half of them are police or military officers.
As for the new aid conditions, these did, in the middle of this decade, lead to a brief spring for Egyptian democracy activists. Yet the window of openness closed quite quickly. Ayman Nour—a prominent activist and leader of the Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party—was sentenced to five years of hard labor on trumped-up forgery charges in 2005. Bloggers, journalists and editors were arrested, harassed and, in a number of instances, raped in custody. Po-lice beat demonstrators supporting the rule of law and an independent judiciary, and security thugs en-gaged in widespread voter intimidation and violence during parliamentary elections. Mubarak showed that whatever the conditions or threats from Washington, he had no interest in allowing anything but the most superficial and cosmetic political changes.
Given the intransigence of Mubarak's regime, the United States would receive the best return on its investment if it shifted its Egypt aid back to technical areas like agriculture, pre- and postnatal health and disease prevention—a particularly pressing need in a country with the highest incidence of hepatitis C in the world. Polls have shown that Egyptians hate being lectured to by outsiders, and there is no better way to win hearts and minds than to help ensure the health of babies born in the desperately poor neighborhoods of Cairo. As surveys and focus groups consistently demonstrate, if people in the Arab world want anything from America, it's the kind of technical assistance that makes a tangi-ble difference in their daily lives. And a healthier, wealthier and better-educated Egyptian population is more likely to start demanding personal and political freedoms—the kind of demands that may, someday, actually lead Egypt to democratize and sustain it when it does.
Reducing the emphasis on democracy-promotion programs will also significantly reduce tensions between Washington and Cairo that sharpened under President Bush. For all of its shortcomings, Egypt remains a critically important U.S. ally. Cairo has been very helpful (albeit discreetly) in efforts to fuel and supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the Obama administration will need Mubarak onboard as it launches a diplomatic effort to forge Palestinian-Israeli peace.
The United States can and should play a constructive role in encouraging change in Egypt and the Middle East. But a lighter touch, and initiatives that actually help people, will serve everyone's interests better than fuzzy preaching about democracy promotion—and programs unlikely to produce much change.