Now that Hosni Mubarak is getting accustomed to life as an ex-dictator, Barack Obama and his foreign-policy aides have a new task. Washington has publicly called for an Egyptian transition to democracy, which Egypt has never known. To avoid a continuation of dictatorial rule under a new strongman or a dangerous power vacuum as weaker players try to seize control Egypt will need to see the lightning-fast development of long-suppressed political parties. So the U.S. is preparing a new package of assistance to Egyptian opposition groups, designed to help with constitutional reform, democratic development and election organizing, State Department officials tell TIME. The package is still being formulated, and the officials decline to say how much it would be worth or to which groups it would be directed.
White House officials declined to say whether any of the new money would be directed to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most prominent Islamist party.
The Obama Administration cut democracy-and-governance aid to Egyptian opposition groups in its first two years in office, from $45 million in George W. Bush's last budget to $25 million for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. The Obama Administration also stopped providing aid to groups that had not registered with the Egyptian government, drawing criticism from human-rights organizations. The Administration has had conversations with Egyptian government officials, including the Egyptian envoy to the U.S., Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, about the provision of new aid, sources tell TIME.
The U.S. has a history of providing assistance to nascent democracy movements, with mixed results. In countries like Serbia and Ukraine, direct and indirect U.S. aid helped youth-driven opposition movements successfully oust repressive leaders by training them in nonviolent civil disobedience, election organization and other fundamentals of civil society. Elsewhere, like in Belarus, the U.S. has had less success funding change through direct democracy-building aid, as dictatorial regimes remain impervious to democratic movements.
Not everyone thinks democracy-building aid helps. Some analysts, like Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, criticized Bush-era democracy aid to Egypt as wasteful and better spent on agricultural and other projects. But a detailed study by researchers at Vanderbilt University and others found that U.S. democracy aid was the only statistically significant factor affecting the pace and success of democratic development in the postCold War period.
Egypt's opposition groups are not starting from scratch, but after decades of repression under Mubarak, the country does not have much of a foundation to build on, U.S. officials have concluded. "There is a civil society in Egypt," says State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, "but it has suffered from decades of restrictions. They do have an opposition, but it's not yet organized." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first suggested the U.S. might give aid to the Egyptian opposition groups on her way back to Washington from Munich on Feb. 6. "As the enormity of the organizational challenge is confronted by responsible leaders of the protest and the opposition, they are saying, 'O.K., we've got work to do,' " Clinton said. "We are going to try to work with a lot of like-minded countries around the world to offer whatever assistance we can."