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US aid caught up in Middle East crackdown on civil society

An analysis of the State Department budget request shows a drop in support for democracy and human rights.
Riot policemen travel in their vehicles as they release tear gas during clashes with protesters along a road leading to the U.S. embassy, near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 28, 2012. Hundreds of demonstrators were in Cairo's Tahrir Square for a sixth day on Wednesday to demand that President Mohamed Mursi rescind a decree they say gives him dictatorial powers, and two of Egypt's top courts stopped work in protest. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh  (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3AZL8

President Barack Obama has all but given up on reforming the Middle East in the final year of a presidency that started off with grand hopes for democracy in the region, according to a new analysis of US aid priorities.

The promotion of democracy and human rights has taken a back seat to military support for autocracies that are in the midst of an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, according to an analysis of the State Department's budget request for the 2017 fiscal year by the nonprofit Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). The annual report was presented to congressional staffers on Capitol Hill on April 26 in hopes of impacting assistance priorities as the House and Senate spending panels put the final touches on foreign aid appropriations.

"As the Obama administration comes to an end," POMED writes in its report, "it will leave behind a legacy in the region of continuing close ties with repressive governments and increasing already-robust security assistance, while reducing attention to and funding for democracy, human rights, and governance."

The POMED report found that security and military assistance increased from 69% of total State Department aid to the Middle East in Obama's first budget eight years ago to 73% in fiscal year 2017. That's not counting Department of Defense funding or the record $100 billion in arms sales to the region since Obama took over.

Assistance for democracy building, by contrast, fell from 7% to 6% of the total. And that's before taking into account the increasing difficulty of actually getting that money out the door to partners on the ground.

"The crackdown that we're seeing across the region by governments against civil society is having really dramatic effects," said POMED Executive Director Stephen McInerney. He said that not only is the crackdown having dramatic effects on local civil society organizations, but also increasingly is "having an effect beyond that and it's really affecting the international community and foreign assistance to a number of countries across the region." 

The State Department, for example, requested $406.8 million for democracy and human rights programs in fiscal year 2015, but only $180.4 million — about 44% — ended up getting spent. The department has requested $427.5 million for such programs in fiscal year 2017 — $15 million less than for fiscal year 2016 — but Congress is taking a hard look at whether funding such programs makes sense in the current environment. 

The State Department, for example, has requested $150 million in economic support for Egypt, about 10% of which is for democracy and human rights programs. But that economic aid pipeline is already facing a $500 million to $700 million backlog, Al-Monitor reported earlier this month, spurring calls to reallocate the funding to countries that are seen as more deserving, such as Tunisia.

"We've sort of had this contradictory relationship where on the one hand governments in the region very much want foreign aid and are dependent on foreign aid, and on the other hand they see foreign aid or foreign funding that they do not fully control as very threatening," McInerney said. "And so the situation now has become that many of the programs — including programs that many governments in the region think are very important and would like to see — are having difficulty being implemented and put in place."

The Gulf states began cracking down right after the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. But the POMED report argues that several other countries have recently been following suit, creating potential difficulties for the release of US assistance. 

In Jordan, a new draft nongovernmental organization law introduced last month has activists worried, while development groups report "growing levels of 'micromanagement' … even for programs not explicitly related to human rights or political reform issues," according to POMED. In Morocco, journalists and civil society members have reportedly faced trial for not reporting foreign funding. And in Libya, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives has passed an association law POMED describes as "extraordinarily restrictive" for its requirement that NGOs receive government permission before they can receive any foreign funding or training.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, attended the briefing and urged staffers to press for continued support for democracy building rather than fall back on historical support for autocrats seen as US allies.

"Libya is a failed state today because for 42 years [Moammar] Gadhafi was absolutely focused systematically on destroying every social and political institution that could potentially challenge his rule," said Wittes, now the director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy. "That's what autocrats do. And the longer an autocracy is in power, the worse it's going to be."

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