Shadow Government

A new Egypt appears to be dawning

The first round of the Egyptian vote for president has concluded, with a runoff to be held in June. Five of the 13 candidates are considered frontrunners and at the close of the second day of voting, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate is claiming the lead. Things couldn't be worse, no? Well, yes, they could be -- in fact, things are not so bad. Steeling myself as I anticipate my fellow democracy campaigners calling me overly optimistic, I will nevertheless plunge ahead. My optimism has a foundation.

What should evoke some optimism is 1) that this vote happened at all; 2) that it was preceded by demonstrations of grassroots political participation that has been influencing leaders for over a year and that is very likely to continue no matter who wins and no matter how entrenched the military elite remain; and 3) while we don't know the true count of the first round yet, several of the frontrunners vying for second place are not hardline Islamists. In fact, among those vying for second spot are a moderate Islamist who courts Christians, liberals, and leftists; two former Mubarak cabinet officials; and a leftist.

What we can gather from polling and journalists' reports is encouraging. Polling in Egypt, as in most developing countries and former tyrannies, is of course not very reliable, but what polls exist, in addition to much journalist-based anecdotal evidence, shows that many Egyptians, even in solidly pro-Islamist regions of the country, are wary of the Brotherhood or any Islamist party getting dominance over the country. The public has been unimpressed with, and even afraid of, too much control falling into the hands of the radicals. The Brotherhood's 6-month stint running parliament has given pause to an electorate, even among the Brotherhood's friends. Egyptians have been quoted as saying they want to see more than one party or point of view have some power. That's a democratic attitude that bodes well if a critical mass of Egyptians hold it and continue to vote that way.

And interestingly, it appears that some Egyptians are acting in the civic arena like Westerners: families are divided, and without bitterness, over candidates and party platforms.

In short, with this vote, even if the Brotherhood candidate wins it all, Egypt seems to have changed from a society that was under the sway and "tutelage" of despots to one that is awakening to the rights of citizens to choose their leaders from among many options and to hold those leaders accountable for good governance. The path forward will surely be rough at times -- probably often -- but the path forward appears to be one of Egyptians continuing to demand that government be more their servant than their master, as it has been for 5000 years.

So without getting caught up yet in the specific outcomes of the presidential election, let's recall how far Egyptians have come in the democratization of their country and appreciate why it should afford us a measure of hope -- even if there is little chance that a democratic reformer will be announced the winner next week and assume a mandate to operate within constitutional limits. We'll be able to rest more easily about the stability of Egyptian democracy when we know Egyptian grandmothers are hectoring their grandchildren to do their civic duty and go vote -- as the latter have come to take it for granted. That day is a long way off, but the last two days have been a promising start toward that day.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

Aid in a time of austerity: Adios, smart power

The Senate version of the foreign assistance bill is taking shape, and it is commendable for being both sound and a broadly bipartisan approach, even though it signals the death knell of the Obama administration's commitment to "smart power." The Subcommittee on Foreign Operations yesterday approved $52 billion in foreign assistance, only 2 percent less than this year's spending. That is an amazing commitment to help other countries and shape the international order, given that the United States will have to borrow $20.8 billion of that money.

Predictably, the Senate is reducing aid to Pakistan. While still providing $1 billion in aid to Pakistan, the bill would reduce that aid by 58 percent. Pakistan itself provoked the hardening opposition: Its extortionate demand for upwards of $3,000 customs charge on every truck carrying NATO supplies into Afghanistan was the driving factor in shaping Congressional attitudes. Previous to the suspension that has been in place the past six months, the cost to us was $200. The U.S. may very well end up paying in customs fees what it previously gave in foreign assistance, but perhaps not: Supply routes have been substantially diversified. We may simply end up paying Pakistan's neighbors.  

The Obama administration also bears not inconsiderable responsibility for the cuts to Pakistan. Soldiers joke that we haven't fought a ten year war in Afghanistan, but ten one year wars because the approach kept shifting. The same is true with Obama administration "strategy" toward Pakistan. President Obama came into office having campaigned on conducting unilateral military attacks inside Pakistan, setting a confrontational tone; then adopted a "strategic dialogue" approach of $5 billion in annual assistance to Pakistan in order to reassure them; suspended in 2011 military aid to Pakistan; then made the aid conditional on Pakistan's full support in our war effort. Now  the Obama administration cannot even get the Pakistani suspension of transit rights lifted by including Pakistani President Zardari in the NATO summit festivities. Relations with Pakistan have never been worse. Given that Pakistan is essential to achieving our war aims, this would seem to refute National Security Advisor Tom Donilon's claim that the Obama administration repaired America's relations with America's allies.

Iraq also came in for reductions in aid, a whopping 77 percent, the largest cut enacted in the bill. The Senate understandably eliminated funding for the ill-conceived and clownishly executed State Department police training program. So much for what Secretary Clinton termed "the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan." For those who wonder why enormous swathes of civilian activity have migrated into the Pentagon, State's incapacity to develop an executable program for capitalizing on the military's gains in Iraq should explain it.  

And for all the administration's grandstanding at the NATO summit about our long-term commitment to Afghanistan, the Senate would reduce assistance there by 28 percent, equating the administration's draw-down in military forces with a draw-down in civilian activity. Needless to say, civilian spending should increase to cushion the transition as military forces withdraw. But having bungled both the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan and the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, the Department of State and USAID are in no position to persuade the Congress. Not that they have tried, incidentally. It is incredibly disheartening to compare the silence of State/AID in defending their budget to the roar of DOD claxons the past six months in conditioning Congressional attitudes about cuts to defense spending.

In one final grace note, the Senate bill would reduce aid to Egypt by the $5 million required to buy the freedom of U.S. citizens that were to have been put on trial in Egypt for promoting democratic change. As Senator Graham put it, "we got our money back." 

Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images