Why I pay (close) attention to Egypt

Protests in Cairo
Flickr, Al Jazeera

Here’s a few updates about attempts to divert the story line on Egypt:

As Time magazine reports, the Mubarak regime is trying to hang on by making misleading claims that this popular uprising is about Islamist extremists.

Some pundits, such as MSNBC’s Robert Windrem, are even warning of weapons of mass destruction breaking loose if a new government in Egypt is formed.

The big news today is that the Muslim Brotherhood, like the Obama Administration, has backed away from demanding President Hosni Mubarak step down immediately. This should now make this Muslim organization, previously shunned by the Mubarak regime but now treated (misleadingly?) as a key representative of the opposition, about as popular as the U.S. government with the democracy protesters.

——————————-But why pay so much attention here on this site?———————————-

One of my alleged superiors recently asked me why, given my job is to write about global health and foreign development, I keep writing about Egypt. Seemed to him like my gaze has wandered too far afield.

It’s a fair question.

Here are the top four reasons why I pay close attention to Egypt:

  1. Egypt is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. development aid, next to Israel and Pakistan.
  2. Most of our “aid” to Egypt goes to the military, which (to me anyway) highlights a fundamentally confused state of affairs when it comes to how we conceive of foreign aid.
  3. The turmoil is not limited to Egypt and it is not simply a fight for freedom and political change. It is also about the world food crisis, which (depending upon your view) is either here already or looming large.
  4. The uprising in the Arab world is about human rights. All our efforts to improve health and economic welfare need to be matched by the international community’s commitment to improving human rights.

I’ve already written about our tendency to call military spending “foreign aid.” Most Americans think by foreign aid we mostly mean helping poor people in poor countries. Nope.

And as I’ve also written before, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama Administration seem to be willing to confuse these two arenas even more as part of a big plan to “re-invent” foreign aid.

A much more extensive examination of the problems inherent in this confused strategy (and of my first and second reasons) is found in this article by David Rieff in the Atlantic. Says Rieff:

It is true that, since 1975, USAID has provided a total of $28 billion in economic and development assistance to Egypt. But, while on the micro-level many of these programs have been well-designed, and enjoyed a measure of success, on a macro-level, the facts permit only one conclusion: on its own terms, U.S. military aid to Egypt has been a success, but U.S. development aid to Egypt by any objective measure has been an abject failure.

On my third reason, that the uprising is partly about food, David Frum at the National Post notes that “Food Lies at the Heart of the Egyptian Solution.” Whether you agree with Frum or not, the flip side to his point is that food prices, poverty, is also at the heart of the problem.

The fourth reason, I would hope, needs no explanation.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Thinking about how the majority of our aid to Egypt is to the military… is that because they are an instrumental part of the Gaza strip blockade? We need Egypt to continue to help with our military support of Israel.

    • Hi Kirsten,
      Yes, our support for Egypt, as a moderate Arab nation, is intended to bolster regional security by assuring a balance of power in the Middle East. I don’t really have the expertise to be able to judge if this arrangement has actually increased security or not. Some would say political change — such as finding resolution on Palestine — would likely do more.

      My question is about lumping military aid into the same category as foreign aid aimed at providing food, medicines and economic assistance for the poor. I think these two kinds of aid need to be regarded as distinctly different since they often work against each other. In Egypt, it appears the military aid has served to prop up a dictator to the detriment of the Egyptian people. And now we have massive instability, insecurity, as a result.

  • Hi Tom,
    Good post. Would love to see you write it up into a fuller examination of the issues. (I know, I know–all we need is more time). Still, not sure I can let you get away with saying #4 regarding human rights is self-evident. Not trying to shut down the conversation, just looking to understand the logic.

    • Hi Christine,
      I guess all I’m saying is the situation in Egypt makes it clear that we can’t continue to assume that foreign aid only needs to be just about providing material goods — whether it’s medicines and food or weapons.
      The turmoil in Egypt has exposed the schizoid nature of foreign aid, in which we ignore human rights abuses and oppression but provide material goods. I think that approach may have run its course here. We need to talk about providing foreign aid that helps people improve their health and welfare but also their ability to live freely. Other nations do this. It’s part of their political dialogue. High time for the U.S. to do this as well.