Bush program helped lay the groundwork in Egypt

Vote monitors trained with funds from US

In November, demonstrators decried what they called widespread vote rigging in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. US funds helped train election monitors who observed that election. In November, demonstrators decried what they called widespread vote rigging in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. US funds helped train election monitors who observed that election. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters/File)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / February 13, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A small, controversial effort launched under President George W. Bush to fund and train election monitors in Egypt played a key role in the movement to topple President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

The program, which provided millions in direct funding to prodemocracy groups, helped dispatch 13,000 volunteers to observe Egypt’s parliamentary elections in December. Thousands of those monitors, angered by what they said was blatant election rigging, joined the protests. Some became outspoken leaders; others used the networking and communication skills they learned to help coordinate 18 days of rallies.

“The very fact that they saw the fraud firsthand has contributed to them turning from monitors into activists,’’ said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which has used a share of the US funds to train volunteers. “They became very disillusioned with the regime.’’

The evolving role of the monitors provides a measure of vindication for Bush administration officials and allies, including Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, who fought for permission to funnel money to the monitors, bucking a longstanding US policy of giving Egypt a veto over US funds.

“I certainly feel vindicated,’’ said Charles King Mallory IV, a former aide to Elizabeth Cheney, who could not be reached for comment.

But it also raises questions about whether some Egyptians will see a grain of truth in Mubarak’s allegations that “foreign intervention’’ fomented the uprising.

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy and research group, said the protesters would probably still have been active without US support, but they wouldn’t be as well-organized.

“We didn’t fund them to start protests, but we did help support their development of skills and networking,’’ he said.

Mahmoud Ali Mohamed, head of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy, the largest election monitoring organization in Egypt, said his monitors were dispatched to Tahrir Square on the first day of the protests to document attacks on demonstrators.

As the protests grew, he opened an operations room from which 320 volunteers took tips from the public about abuses by progovernment forces, and he wrote press releases publicizing attacks and arrests. Now his group is considering launching lawsuits against those who killed or hurt protesters.

He said December’s parliamentary election, viewed by many as the most fraudulent in Egypt since the 1970s, galvanized the entire nation.

When the government announced that the opposition won less than 12 seats in parliament, down from 95 in 2005, in the first round, Egyptians “understood that there was no fair election,’’ he said.

“In a way or another, it helped what is happening right now,’’ he said, speaking through an interpreter in a telephone interview.

The United States began to fund election monitors in Egypt as part of Bush’s push for democratic reform. For decades, the United States hesitated to apply too much pressure to repressive regimes in the Midddle East, believing that stability in the region was more important than democracy. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush said that policy would change. He asserted that repression produces instability in the long run and fuels religious extremism.

To bring his vision of promoting democracy to life, Elizabeth Cheney launched a State Department effort to support reforms, known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI.

The administration increased funding for good governance and democracy in Egypt, from $3.5 million in 2005 to $55 million in 2008. But in the early years, most funding was channeled through the government, which often undermined the efforts, according to a 2009 report by the inspector general of the US Agency for International Development.

For instance, USAID spent $950,000 on civics textbooks for children that Egypt’s Education Ministry did not want to distribute. Funds were also spent on state-run media.

So a small group of officials led by Cheney pushed for more than three years for permission to fund independent groups. “We were saying, ‘The situation [in Egypt] cannot hold,’ ’’ recalled Mallory, Cheney’s aide.

They faced fierce opposition from career US diplomats who didn’t want to upset a key ally. But in 2005, the initiative provided about $1.2 million in funding for five organizations to train political parties and candidates, strengthen the advocacy skills of civic leaders, and monitor elections. Last year, MEPI gave $1.3 million for such groups.

Mohamed said his group received $70,000 in 2005, and $450,000 last year, helping him expand from 168 election monitors in 2004 to more than 5,000 in 2010. Ibrahim’s group received at least $150,000 in 2005, and $167,000 last year, according to the State Department.

The government also gave $1.5 million to the National Democratic Institute, a Washington group, to train monitors and give them equipment.

Leslie Campbell, the institute’s regional director, said the Bush administration’s support also offered protection for election monitors. Prior to receiving US funds, the Egyptian government imprisoned Ibrahim for declaring fraud in the 1995 elections and seized sample ballots he used in trainings, claiming they were proof he himself was committing election fraud. But after his group received US support, his monitors received accreditation to observe the polls.

“That relatively small gesture had a huge impact,’’ he said.

But by the end of Bush’s second term, he softened his democracy push. Analysts and former US officials say Bush grew more wary of the effort after the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist group in Egypt that has been critical of the United States, won 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary election.

US officials were also concerned by victories at the polls by the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, respectively. Indeed, analysts say, if the protesters’ demands are met and fair elections are held, there is no guarantee that the new government would be as friendly as the Mubarak government to the United States and Israel.

“It is challenging because sometimes [people’s] decisions are not in keeping with American-style democracy or what we would like to see,’’ said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who lobbied the Egyptian government last summer to allow monitors more access to the polls.

When Obama took office, his administration halved the amount of money available for democracy funding in Egypt, to $20 million in 2008, and allowed Egypt to have a veto again over some funds.

Donna Woolf, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, blamed the difficult budget environment for the cut. But she said the Obama administration funneled more money to independent groups than Bush, with $2.6 million directly funding groups that don’t have the Egyptian government’s permission to operate.

“The vibrancy and strength of Egyptian civil society that’s been on display this past week is testament to the wisdom of our strategy,’’ she said in a statement.

But many activists said Bush deserves the credit. “As a social scientist and an activist, I have to be honest, the Bush administration did more for what is happening in Egypt now,’’ Ibrahim said.

Farah Stockman can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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