Nothing worries me more about the future of Egypt than its economy. The White House seems to agree. The budgetary atmosphere in DC rules out a new Marshall Plan. Still, we have forgiven $1 billion of Egyptian debt, spearheaded further efforts at the G8, established an enterprise fund, created a regional trade and investment initiative, conducted entrepreneurship exchange programs, and cultivated private sector ties between our two countries.
But many of our efforts are viewed with suspicion by Egyptian revolutionaries - especially those with leftist leanings. They worry that the US has ulterior motives, that we seek to subvert the revolution to our economic interests. They look at previous interventions of the IMF and World Bank and - not entirely unjustifiably - worry about social unrest from economic upheaval.
One of the main goals of our public diplomacy in post-revolutionary Egypt must be to convince the public that many of their fears are unfounded. A majority of Arabs conflate democracy with economic outcomes. If Egypt's economy tanks, so will the aspirations of Tahrir Square. The US must do what it can to help ensure that does not happen. That first requires convincing Egyptians to let us help.
That is why this article in Al Masry Al Youm is so damaging. The English version claims that over the past 30 years, 90% of the $6 billion dollars given to Egypt by USAID has been "misused." The Arabic version gives a more detailed and slightly different account. It clarifies the $6 billion refers to aid for democracy and human rights assistance, not all assistance, but maintains the claim 90% of those funds were wasted. Among other figures, it also claims USAID gave $344 million for economic development in 2009 - implying such assistance has not helped dent Egypt's high rates of poverty, hunger and disease because of waste.
These numbers originate from a report by the "Center for Economic Studies" (I have yet to find the original report). Although the article cites an anonymous government official who denies these figures, the article clearly will confirm the widespread skepticism over American assistance.
The problem is these numbers don't add up with American statistics. According to the USAID mission in Egypt, the agency has given $28.6 billion between 1975-2009, not $6 billion. So the English version of the article is clearly wrong. According to the same source, democracy and governance assistance for that period has accounted for 4% of USAID funds ($1.144 billion), so the Arabic version's clarification of the $6 billion figure is also wrong. Moreover, according to this report by the Congressional Research Service, the entire US government (not just USAID) gave $250 million in economic assistance in 2009, not $344 million as the article claims.
If such basic facts are wrong, how we can trust the claim that 90% of USAID funds were wasted? Now I'm sure we waste a lot of money over there, but that number just seems fishy to me.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't sound so fishy to many Egyptians. And that's our problem. I hope we push back against this article and set the record straight.
*Thanks to @bungdan, @nervana_1 and @stevenacook for their help on this post.