Egypt: worrying about the wrong foreign funding

In July, a mini-crisis of sorts erupted between Egypt and the United States over foreign funding. The spark was probably the congressional testimony of the new US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, in June, in which she said that the US was earmarking $40m for USAID democracy and governance spending.

By late July, the $40m figure was being cited in the Egyptian media, and sometimes was inflated to $60m, the figure that the US State Dept. had considered spending earlier in the year. Public records showed that most of the money went to the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the International Federation for Electoral Systems (IFES) — some of which they no doubt redistributed to local partners. The media began to raise up a storm, while the government demanded clarifications from the US.

Part of this is an old fight that would reoccur frequently in the Mubarak era, over Egyptian anger at money being given Egyptian NGOs without its authorization. In 2009, the former US Ambassador, Margaret Scobey, has gotten the US to change policies and allow Egyptian approval. It was part of the patch-up in bilateral relations after the chill Bush administration, and it sent a negative message much more important than the actual cash.

I remember that during the occupation of Tahrir Square in July, the question of foreign funding was on the protestors’ minds too. They demanded to know what the US was using this money for, and who was receiving it.

Fast forward to this month, and the question of foreign funding is changing tack. A few days ago, the Egyptian press revealed (from government sources) that several of the largest transactions to civil society organizations have come from the Gulf, not the West.

The numbers are quite telling. According to these reports, over LE181m ($30m) was given to the Ansar al-Sunna association, a very conservative religious group, by Qatar’s al-Thani Foundation. Kuwaiti and Emirati religious associations also donated significant sums, ones that dward what secular human rights groups might be receiving at the moment.

Think that US democracy aid to Egypt this year is about $40m. A single transaction from Qatar was $30m. The generals must be looking at the US funding and thinking, “this is peanuts.”