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U.S. Assistance to the Middle East Is Drying Up When the Region Needs It Most

People in a cafe watch President Obama on a TV
Patrons of a cafe in Cairo talk as President Obama speaks about changes to the U.S. role in the Middle East on May 19, 2011. © Ed Ou/Redux

At the beginning of the Arab uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, President Obama declared that the United States would stand with those fighting for human rights and democracy. The rhetoric from him and senior officials raised hopes in the Arab world that important and overdue changes to U.S. policy were imminent.

Since then, transformations have occurred. After a brief period of optimism that widespread democracy would take hold, authoritarian regimes have reasserted themselves with draconian laws targeting civil society. The already limited space for civil organizations, especially pro-democracy groups, is shrinking across the region—most dramatically in Egypt, but also in Jordan, Libya, and Morocco.

During this critical time, Obama’s promise of support couldn’t be more vital. And yet, against the backdrop of declining democracy and increasing repression, U.S. support has been inconsistent, half-hearted, and not backed up by meaningful pressure on the authoritarian allies of the United States. On occasion, the administration has taken stands through private messages or public statements condemning specific crackdowns against civil society. But it has largely failed to follow its words with action.

Instead, it has gone back to prioritizing overly militarized relationships with repressive regimes in exchange for short-term security. In 2013, President Obama launched his “Stand with Civil Society” initiative, pledging that the U.S. government would back firmly those in civil society facing pressure, harassment, and threats from their government. But his administration has mostly watched silently as the government of Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid globally, has been steadily wiping out its vibrant community of independent human rights organizations.

Every year since 2008, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) publishes a report examining the U.S. federal budget and appropriations for the Middle East and North Africa. This is important not only for identifying specific changes to budget allocations or foreign assistance programs, but also because these changes and trends are revealing of U.S. policy priorities and thinking.

POMED’s analysis of the administration’s annual budget since Obama took office shows the degree to which U.S. policy, engagement, and assistance have fallen short of meeting the democratic needs of the region. The share of democracy and governance funding was highest in the Obama administration’s first budget request, for fiscal year 2010, at 7.4 percent, or $380 million. But it has averaged only 4.8 percent annually from fiscal year 2011 through his final budget for fiscal year 2017.

In 2015, the administration spent only $180 million, the lowest level of Obama's presidency. By contrast, the share of U.S. military and security assistance to the region—already the clear majority of U.S. aid when Obama entered office—has only grown during his administration, to a level of 73.4 percent, or $5.38 billion in his final budget request for fiscal year 2017.

Moreover, according to the Government Accountability Office, the State Department and the Department of Defense have failed to adequately monitor exactly where this security aid goes. There are legal restrictions designed to ensure that U.S. security assistance is not used against civil society, but unfortunately, U.S. officials are often uninterested in enforcing them so as not to weaken close relationships with repressive governments.

In addition, the Obama administration has repeatedly requested that Congress remove or weaken the “Brownback Amendment,” a key legislative provision instructing the Secretary of State not to seek the prior approval of host governments when providing assistance to nonprofits and civil society groups overseas.

Fortunately, Congress has refused to do so, but the administration's consistent efforts further undermine the notion that President Obama “stands with civil society.”

As the Obama administration comes to an end, it will leave behind a legacy of continuing close ties with the region’s repressive governments, while reducing assistance for democracy, human rights, and governance at a time when they are needed most. The administration's only remaining hope for a positive legacy in the Arab world is in Tunisia, which has made important and historic progress in its democratic transition, but still faces enormous challenges. Unfortunately, Tunisia has mostly been an afterthought for the administration, still receiving far less U.S. attention, support, and assistance than traditional recipients of U.S. support such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The next administration should reexamine the outdated U.S. assistance relationship with its Arab allies, be more committed to supporting genuine democratic reform initiatives, and challenge the closing political spaces of the region. During these difficult times across the region, U.S. commitment is important in providing practical support, and in sending a symbolic message that America stands with civil society.

The Project on Middle East Democracy is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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