At an international conference attended by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and designed to strengthen local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society in the Middle East, Egyptian officials pressed for language stipulating that only organizations legally registered with their governments were covered by the new fund, known as the Foundation for the Future.
Egypts law governing NGOs places numerous restrictions on these organizations.
The U.S. characterized the Egyptian position as inappropriate. "In our view and in the view of other delegations, this would have circumscribed NGO activity," said a senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters traveling with Rice.
The foundation has commitments of over $50 million to help nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions and professional associations foster freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The United States has pledged $35 million.
Saudi Arabia and Oman initially supported the Egyptian position, but ultimately all the governments except Egypt agreed to remove language that would have given them control over foreign resources going to groups in their countries.
Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel; it receives roughly $2 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance annually. Since it made peace with Israel more than 25 years ago, it has received tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. It is home to more than half the Arab world's population.
The conference, known as the Forum for the Future, was held in Bahrain and brought together dozens of nations -- including 22 Arab countries and members of the G-8 industrialized countries.
The Forum is a joint U.S.-European initiative launched at the 2004 G-8 summit hosted by President Bush at Sea Island, Georgia. It is a key part of the Bush Administrations Broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Initiative. The first Forum for the Future conference was held last year in Morocco.
Because of the Egyptian action, this years Forum ended without an official communique'. Its planned final declaration would have committed MENA countries to "expand democratic practices, to enlarge participation in political and public life, to foster the roles of civil society, including NGOs, and to widen women's participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and education fields and to reinforce their rights and status in society while understanding that each country is unique."
Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist who attended the conference, was quoted by The Washington Post as charging that the government of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was holding the region "hostage to its despotism. By so doing," he said, "they leave the field clear for the theocrats . . .The theocrats still have the mosque," a reference to the fact that Egypt's proposed restriction would have limited funds available to secular democracy activists and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.
Ibrahim directs a research and advocacy institute in Cairo that monitors elections, conducts voter education projects, and at times criticizes the Egyptian government. In the summer of 2000, he and 27 of his colleagues were arrested and tried before a state security court on several charges allegedly connected to their work. All 28 defendants were found guilty on some of these charges and several were sent to jail. Ibrahim was sentenced to a seven-year term. His conviction was overturned by the Egyptian Supreme Court and he was ultimately acquitted of all charges in a second trial and released in 2003.
Ibrahim heads the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.
Dr. Omid Safi of Colgate University believes that "The failure of the Forum for the Future yet again brings to light the failure of the Bush administration to grasp that the majority of people in the Middle East will continue to judge U.S. actions not by fancy rhetoric and multi-million-dollar initiatives, but rather by the changing of our foreign policy to one that abides by international human rights agreements and empowers self-determination."
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