MFAN Event Recap: “The New Middle East: Can Foreign Assistance Bolster the Arab Spring?”


On Thursday, July 21, MFAN and Foreign Policy magazine co-hosted, The New Middle East: Can Foreign Assistance Bolster the Arab Spring?” The event explored how the U.S. should leverage foreign assistance to protect and advance nascent democratic trends in the Arab world.  Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Tamara Cofman Wittes gave a keynote speech, followed by panel discussion with Jacuqeline Strasser, Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to the President for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC); John Norris, Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress; Hisham Fahmy, Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt; and Ehaab Abdou, co-founder of Nahdet El Mahrousa, an Egyptian youth-led NGO. Moderated by Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy Susan Glasser, the event expanded on MFAN’s recent policy paper, “Charting a New Path for U.S. Foreign Assistance in the Middle East,” with a special focus on how non-military foreign assistance, trade, and investment can collectively contribute to more effective and efficient policies in this highly strategic region for U.S. national interests. Video of the event can be found here.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Tamara Cofman Wittes’ keynote address focused on three longstanding trends that contributed to the events of the Arab Spring: demographic shifts toward a younger population, expanded economic and social aspirations limited by diminished opportunity, and the growth of new media outlets, including increased access to Arabic satellite television and the internet. “There is no country in the Middle East that is free from these pressures for change,” she said. Deputy Assistant Secretary Wittes predicted that, although democratization is a tumultuous process, functional democratic institutions will inevitably usher in prolonged regional stability. In one of the clearest expressions of Administration policy, Deputy Assistant Secretary Wittes categorized the Arab Spring as a “strategic opportunity” for the U.S. that will provide stronger partners in advancing security, stability, and prosperity.  “Democratic reform across the region is a top foreign policy objective… [it] is the channel through which the Arab peoples can meet their political social, and economic concerns,” she said. She outlined the multi-dimensional foreign assistance approach that both the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the State Department at large have adopted.  Wittes stated that foreign assistance remains a key element of the U.S. response to events in the region, and emphasized her office’s commitment to increasing the share of MEPI grants given to local organizations.

Ms. Glasser then took the podium and launched into a discussion of the critical issues facing U.S. policymakers’ as they try to keep pace with new developments in the region. Mr. Norris emphasized the integral value of providing collaborative assistance that strengthens local ownership while highlighting the challenges to achieving a genuine partnership. He argued that U.S. inconsistency in applying uniform democratic standards contributes to the cynicism surrounding aid among Arab publics. Ms. Strasser outlined OPIC’s expansive role in ensuring the continued flow of private investment in Middle Eastern countries undergoing democratic transitions, including loans to small/medium enterprises and the development of new political risk insurance instruments. Mr. Fahmy focused on the importance of the private sector as the engine of employment for youth, and warned that post-revolutionary populism represents a threat to the potential of the Arab Spring. He lauded the Obama administration’s debt forgiveness package, but lamented the lack of dedicated resources commensurate to the challenges in Egypt and Tunisia. “People are asking, ‘Do we have to have a civil war to get money and attention,’” he said, referring to costs related to the ongoing NATO mission in Libya. Mr. Abdou spoke on the challenges faced by Egyptian civil society, including the cumulative effect of several decades of government efforts to delegitimize NGOs, Egypt’s retrogressive NGO law, and the proliferation of new organizations and associations. He stressed that the top priority of civil society is coordination, yet donor strategies that intensify competition for resources are unintentionally undermining the efficacy of their own assistance and aggravating existing divisions within civil society.

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