Editorial: Talk Isn’t Cheap

Egyptians or Americans upset about United States offers of aid to groups promoting democratic principles ought only look a few hundred miles north to Syria.

The latter country is suffering the worst of the violent and depressing stresses that occur so often in transforming rigid dictatorship to populism.  With thousands already dead, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has done its utmost to pummel opposition into the ground.

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The international community isn’t having much success. While United Nations Secretary General Ban-ki Moon is rightfully condemnatory, the effect of international outrage is practically nonexistent, as the Syrian government continues to batter the uprisings across the nation, and journalists are mostly barred from reporting the atrocities.

Yet in Egypt, complaints issue about the American offering of funds to groups promoting civil and democratic values.  The U.S. has committed about a third of its roughly $200 million economic assistance package to Egypt to “democracy development” programs. (The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, has provided tens of billions of dollars in civil aid to Egypt over the last half century.)

As reported in the Jerusalem Post earlier this week:  “Middle East Online recently published a report indicating that more than 1,000 Egyptians have lined up at the USAID office in Cairo to apply for grants aimed at bolstering ‘electoral systems, conducting opinion polling and using its data, tailoring messages to constituencies, volunteer recruitment and organizing, and all the other trappings of a free and fair election, something Egypt has never seen in its modern history.'”

Now voices are lining up to protest this American intervention in Egyptian domestic affairs. And while history suggests there certainly is reason to be suspicious of what is described as “democratic” assistance – we’ve seen U.S. intelligence and military services masquerading in sheep’s clothing many times before – there’s substantial benefit to both our nation and Egypt in having legitimate, organized voices in favor of peaceful and civil society.

To Egypt, the benefit is fairly obvious.  Moderate and orderly groups participating in free expression and elections only helps to foster democratic principles. Moreover, such activities, particularly when balanced across the political spectrum, help to reduce the influence by radical Islamists and indirectly assist in minimizing the violence toward groups such as the Christian Copts.  And though the Egyptian military has since the outbreak of “Arab Spring” acted in a more professional and capable manner than most other institutions, pluralizing power into the people’s hands is essential to any sort of lasting free society.

To the U.S. and Israel, encouraging a diverse and stable political system in Egypt is essential. While we can fairly debate whether Israel was better off in the previous iteration of Egyptian leadership (corrupt and flawed leader Hosni Mubarak honored the peace with Israel), those days are gone and we can’t compare current political climes to something that no longer exists. An Egyptian environment that dissuades militant Islamism, or for that matter, any fear and hate mongering regime, is good for America and the Jewish State.

The potential in Syria seems much murkier. The dread mullah-led Iran has hedged its bets to have influence no matter the outcome.  For all we know, Assad’s government may soon flee into exile (which may be speeded by their observation of the trial of a frail Mubarak in Egypt), but there’s little assurance the fighters on the street will or are even desirous of melding into a stable democracy.

It’s certainly easy to bash American intervention no matter what political side you’re on. The administration of President Barack Obama has taken hits from various corners for not supporting Israel sufficiently; for encouraging Arab Spring without understanding potential fallout; for being (depending on who you listen to) either too aggressive or not aggressive enough in Libya; and so on and so forth.

But as to that portion of funds that actually goes to grassroots groups to encourage peaceful involvement and civil discourse, we say, bring it on. Extremists scream the loudest and garner the most attention, and should be tempered by those across the broad midsection of ideologies. Unfortunately, often the only way to do that is with the encouragement of resources.

If the U.S. and its allies can help forge some semblance of moderation in Egypt, it will have been a victory for that nation, for Israel and for us.  If such an effort could be replicated on the tragically laden streets of Syria, more the better. We just hope the forces in favor of democracy end up on top so that there’s even a dialogue to be had.