U.S. Democracy Aid and the Authoritarian State: Evidence from Egypt and Morocco

Erin A Snider. International Studies Quarterly. Volume 62, Issue 4. December 2018.

A recent study commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development to assess the effectiveness of its spending on democracy in its programs worldwide found that such aid works—with the sole exception of programs in the Middle East. What explains this exception? I argue that previous studies on democracy aid pay insufficient attention to the fact that such programs often develop as negotiated deals. Because authoritarian regimes may choose how to accept assistance, democracy aid may reward economic interests tied to incumbent regimes. I explore these dynamics through case studies of US democracy programming in Egypt and Morocco.

Democracy aid is now an important component of many states’ foreign policies. Since 1990, the United States alone has spent more than $8 billion toward its worldwide efforts to promote democracy. In 2005, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the primary US agency managing such aid, commissioned a cross-national quantitative study to assess the effectiveness of its spending for democracy worldwide from 1990-2005. Diverging from other research, the study was the first to distinguish democracy aid from foreign assistance. It concluded that spending for democracy works.

Subsequent studies employing similar methods and data also concluded that democracy aid enhances the prospects for democratization in recipient states. But these findings resonate little with the experience of Middle Eastern recipients of democracy assistance. Indeed, the authors of the USAID study found obligations to promote democracy had the largest effects in Asia and Africa, and that democracy funding mattered more “in ‘difficult contexts’ with the Middle East being the exception to this general pattern”. Since 2000, the United States devoted more than $2 billion to promote democracy in the Middle East. This amounted to a significant shift from funding levels in the preceding decade; it reflected the Bush administration’s contention that democracy aid combats extremism and hence constituted a counterterrorism instrument, following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Such efforts, however, made little impact on the region’s political landscape.

Most studies of democracy aid cannot explain why it seems to work everywhere except in the Middle East. Though methodologically sophisticated, major existing studies obscure the actual politics embedded within democracy aid. This exclusion, I argue, prevents us from understanding how such aid works in practice; it may reify one specific way of understanding democracy. Aggregate cross-national studies fail to give sufficient attention to the form, structure, or substance of democracy programs, the context in which they were executed, and negotiations between donor and recipient states. Evaluating the impact of such programs on democracy proves a thorny endeavor for scholars and aid practitioners. Studies like that commissioned by USAID assess progress on democracy using the Freedom House Index (FHI), an ordinal scale employed frequently by scholars as a measure of democracy (Knutsen). Such measures mask complex changes within recipient aid states and often relay a superficial understanding of reform trajectories.

Bader and Faust (2014, 583) note that attention to the actual content and context of assistance programs provides a largely “untapped source of insights into authoritarian preferences” in thinking about aid effectiveness. Leveraging extensive field and archival research in the Middle East and Washington, DC, I argue that previous studies pay insufficient attention to the fact that democracy programs are often negotiated deals. Recipient governments can, and do, help craft their design. The strategic behavior of recipient states may explain the null effects of democracy aid in some countries. Because authoritarian regimes may choose how to accept aid, democracy aid may reward economic interests tied to incumbent regimes.

Thus, programs that appear to scholars as reform-minded may instead enable regimes. Rather than promote democracy, such aid may, perversely, undermine it. This insight attunes us to other dynamics that the theoretical literature on democracy promotion pays, at best, inadequate attention. Most democracy-aid research elides the contested meaning of democracy itself, as well as the assumptions that undergird democracy-aid projects. However, critical theorists of development underscore the importance of understanding how the economic and political are connected in such aid, for example, observe that democracy promotion is “a conduit and mediator of interests and values” and that the “type of democracy that is called for by populations often directly contradicts the conception of democracy of the donors.”

This suggests a focus on the micropolitics of democracy aid that involve the relations among donors, recipient governments, and civil society. I argue that the structure and form of democracy programs reflects the strategic interests shared by both donor and recipient state, as well as how each perceives the ability of the other to advance its interests. A donor’s provision of military and economic aid may allow it to pressure, but not force, a recipient state to adopt democracy programs. Recipient states, leveraging their strategic utility to the donor, should also contest democracy programs when they perceive them as too threatening to their regimes. States with lower strategic value would seem less likely to push back against a donor. For such states, the existence of another external patron, though, may act as another form of leverage to resist or dilute aid programs advocated by the donor state.

The notion that geopolitical concerns play a role in shaping the design and impact of US democracy programs should come as little surprise to scholars of Middle East politics. Indeed, recent work by Brownlee (2012), Carapico (2014), and Jamal (2012a) relays how democracy programs are often subordinated to strategic concerns, particularly in states like Egypt. Strategic imperatives have long shaped the United States’ relationship with states in the region. Securing access to oil and cooperation on issues like counterterrorism often produced uncomfortable, if mutually beneficial, arrangements between the United States and authoritarian regimes—ones maintained through extensive military and economic assistance. Indeed, as Jamal (2012a, 25-27) notes, drawing from Lake’s (2007) work on economic and security hierarchies, what distinguishes the region from others is its dependence on the United States for both security and economic needs.

I explore these dynamics through case studies of past US efforts in Egypt and Morocco, two of the highest recipients of such aid in the region. I employ a paired comparison strategy to trace US democracy-aid efforts in both states from 1990-2010 through projects managed by USAID, the principle agency managing such programs. This record of assistance provides a basis for assessing potential patterns and trends in the formulation, distribution, and reception of aid in different sectors and political and economic contexts over time.

Beyond similarities in aid duration, both states represent different types of authoritarian regimes. Egypt, until 2011, was classified as a one-party dominant state. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, though ultimate power there rests with its king. Both states also vary in their level of dependence on the United States, and by extension, their strategic importance (see Figures 1 and 2). Egypt is the second highest recipient of US foreign assistance, receiving an average of $2 billion annually in military and economic aid since 1979. This amount reflects the United States’ view of Egypt as a vital partner in maintaining regional stability by sustaining peace with Israel and acting as a regional arbiter. The United States also sees Morocco as an important, but less important, regional ally in counterterrorism efforts and trade. Morocco’s assistance from the United States reflects this, averaging $40 million annually since 1979. Variation on both regime type and strategic importance suggests an explanation for differences in the execution and construction of programs in both states and may offer insight for other states in the region and beyond.

This article proceeds as follows. I first elaborate on the assumptions and logic underlying democracy aid before examining the execution of US democracy programming in Egypt and Morocco. I consider how such aid changed following the 2011 Arab uprisings and conclude with implications for studying democracy aid in authoritarian states. Analysis that follows focuses on USAID-executed democracy-aid projects from 1990-2010 and draws on archival records from the US National Archives in College Park, Maryland; Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests; extensive field research in both countries as well as in Washington, DC; and over ninety interviews in Arabic, French, and English with development practitioners, contractors, diplomats, activists, and US Embassy and USAID staff.

Democracy Aid and the Authoritarian State

Much of the democracy-aid literature lacks a nuanced understanding of mechanisms that shape the design and impact of such aid. This task is complicated by the difficulty of obtaining fine-grained details about democracy projects, contracts, and aid recipients. Recent work by Bush (2015) stands as an important exception. It demonstrates that program designs may not necessarily reflect the imperative of challenging regimes or the concerns of local citizens. Building on Cooley and Ron’s (2002) work, she shows how democracy-promotion organizations’ survival instincts may lead them to alter their projects from those that confront regimes to more measurable programs valued by many donors. In many cases, however, a donor’s relations with a host government sets the cast for any organizations and contractors that might eventually execute democracy projects funded by a donor.

In the Middle East, two observations about the orientation of states provide a useful starting point in thinking about mechanisms influencing the design and impact of democracy aid. Most states therein have been governed by an authoritarian regime, and the United States views the region as vital for its national security interests. Carothers (1999) observes that democracy programs aim to challenge the structure of power within a recipient state. Given this, why would an authoritarian regime allow an external actor like the United States to promote democracy? Logically, one would expect such a regime, acting from a nationalist impulse or desire to preserve its sovereignty, to protest or refuse external efforts to promote reforms aimed to realign power within the state. One would also expect caution to govern a donor state’s democracy strategy in areas it regards as strategically important where concerns about stability would be paramount.

Insights drawn from scholars working on patron-client relations, international agreements, aid conditionality, and alliance dynamics underscore the importance of considering the bargaining power of regimes receiving democracy aid. That authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have allowed democracy programs implies some benefit is derived in exchange for such programs to operate. This suggests that a regime’s level of dependency on a donor may shape the extent to which it can challenge the structure and substance of democracy programs. Recipient regimes may feel obliged to allow democracy programs if reliant on a donor for economic or military support. Regimes also may permit programs if acceptance enhances their ability to extract aid or concessions from another donor. An authoritarian regime’s decision to allow programs signals its intent to reform. Even if its commitment to reform is suspect, a regime may try to leverage this signal to enhance its credibility abroad toward garnering further aid and foreign investment.

How might dependence on a donor then shape the form and substance of democracy programs? One would expect a recipient regime’s ability to challenge programs to be a function of its dependence on a donor. Regimes highly dependent on a donor would offer less resistance to aid programs. Those both highly dependent on and seen as strategically important by a donor, however, may tolerate democracy programs but would have significant leverage in shaping their substance. A regime’s strategic importance to the donor thus may insulate it from punishment and afford it more room to negotiate with the donor. In turn, donors concerned about preserving stability with strategically important states may adopt more limited forms of democracy aid as assurance against uncertainty, upheaval, and emerging political actors that may be less cooperative. Though not ideal, a donor may see such limited forms as a foothold to build on should more conducive conditions for liberalization later exist. The existence of exit options in the form of rival donors, conversely, may also give recipient regimes more leeway in negotiating the construction and composition of aid programs.

These dynamics suggest incentive structures shaping interactions between a donor and an authoritarian state in negotiating democracy-aid programs, bringing attention to the primacy of form in aid construction. Citing the work of de Zeeuw and Kumar (2006), Lappin (2010, 187) defines such aid specifically as “the non-profit transfer of funds, expertise, and material to foster democratic groups, initiatives, and institutions that are already working towards a democratic society.” This expansive definition relays multiple forms such aid may take, with resources directed to local government, human rights groups, political parties, and civil society groups among others.

The combination of any of these elements should reflect, as the democracy-aid literature relays, the state of development and distribution of power within a recipient state. Ideally, a donor’s chosen form of democracy aid would reflect the recipient state’s development and the opportunities available with which to maximize the potential for any one component to effect change. In authoritarian states, donors have limited options. For donors, the allure of privileging economic reform as part of a democracy strategy in an authoritarian state is twofold: Economic growth has been cited extensively as one of the variables most likely to enhance the prospects for democracy and ensure its sustainability. Further, in restrictive states, strategies emphasizing economic growth may pose less threat to regimes already engaged in economic reform efforts, thus offering donors a potential platform from which to expand their efforts into more political areas of support.

Privileging economic growth as part of a democracy strategy in an authoritarian state, though, presumes that regimes in such states are committed to distributing any gains from such reform and are invested in the mechanisms by which growth might enhance democratization. The literatures on the durability of authoritarianism in the Middle East and the linkages between fiscal crises and democratization, though, underscore the limitations of assumptions linking economic reform with a diminution of state power. Fiscal crises, for example, served as motivation for many authoritarian regimes to embrace some component of economic liberalization. The notion that economic reforms will generate political reforms, however, underestimates the state capacity of authoritarian regimes and overestimates the democratizing effects of modernization over the medium term.

Because an authoritarian state’s strength is rooted not only in its monopoly of force but in its control over the economy, it will minimize reforms that might undermine its influence in the economy. Economic crisis and reform have often resulted not in the state’s retreat but rather, as Ayubi (1995, 329) reminds us, its redeployment. States as varied as China, Egypt, and Syria demonstrate a regime’s ability to control the pace of reform, implementing measures gradually while reinforcing power through patronage networks and elites within the state. As their experiences indicate, privatization and other tenets of economic reform do not necessarily imply diminished state control and power. In controlling the reform process and reformulating its rules, the resulting private sector may become a mirror of the regime itself.

Privileging economic reform as a part of a democracy strategy in an authoritarian state may be the only avenue available to donors. The process of economic reform and adjustment in such states, though, often have undemocratic outcomes—a point under examined by scholars of democracy assistance. Kurtz’s (1999, 277) research on neoliberalism and democratization in Chile relays that point, finding that rather than serve to weaken state dominance, economic reforms “produced intense social atomization, peasant quiescence, and a reconstruction of rural conservative dominance.” Privatization and other components of neoliberal reforms adopted served to enhance the dominance of the agrarian upper class in Chile, with the effect of diminishing rural democratic contestation. The implication of such an approach is that donor credibility and legitimacy may be jeopardized if those marginalized by a regime perceive such efforts to reinforce the state or associate the reform process with consequent hardships. The assumption that economic reform will eventually serve as a catalyst for political reforms also presumes the beneficiaries of such reforms will act as stewards of democracy interested in extending political reforms to the rest of the population.

These discussions elucidate the motivations of both authoritarian states and donors in accepting and giving democracy assistance. They also illustrate the potential for such assistance to become irrelevant for its intended purpose or to strengthen rather than challenge the structure of power in a recipient state. Dependency on a donor may commit an authoritarian regime to accept some form of democracy assistance. In the process of negotiating this aid, policies and strategies taken by donors could encourage several different pathways through which such regimes manipulate and dilute the substance of democracy programs. By consequence of bargaining, programs may reflect more the imperatives of donor and recipient regimes, rather than those of local citizens. Our attention now turns to how these processes interacted in practice in Egypt and Morocco.

US Democracy Assistance in Egypt

When USAID’s democracy program began in Egypt, the state faced enormous economic and social challenges. After years of declining growth and the postponement of necessary economic reforms, Egypt experienced a fiscal crisis in 1991. The crisis marked two decades of sporadic experiments in economic and political liberalization first launched by President Sadat. In the wake of the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel and the economic crises that ensued, Sadat introduced a policy in 1974 to open the economy to foreign investment, marking a shift from the socialist economic policies of his predecessor, President Nasser. This opening—infitah—of the economy and the resulting policy of privatization (khaskhasa) were intended to encourage foreign investment, though it was not, as Rutherford (2008, 135) notes, Sadat’s intention to completely restructure the economy. The basic purpose of the infitah policy was “to initiate a new development strategy based on export-oriented policies, a more important role for the private sector, foreign investment, and market forces”.

The spirit behind infitah created the expectation that political reforms would follow those in the economic sphere. Subsequent political reforms, such as the establishment of a multiparty system, though, were motivated by the need to manage and minimize opposition resulting from the embrace of a new economic orthodoxy and foreign policy. The shift from a socialist economy to one based on the market threatened the regime’s stability by potentially dislocating its social base of support and a system of patronage and co-optation established under Nasser. Concern for preserving this dynamic—and implementing the bare minimum economic reforms required—explains the erratic trajectory that economic and political reforms took thereafter. In the 1980s, political reforms and liberties such as the expansion of press freedoms, the emergence of thousands of NGOs, and the release of political prisoners were extended in what Brownlee (2003, 49) calls “democracy in doses”—actions intended to ease the state’s economic burden and minimize the impact of economic adjustment.

The private sector’s expansion under infitah over the 1970s and 80s also gave rise to a new class of businessmen whose benefits depended on compliance with the state for support and protection. Elite interests and concerns created by this process of change thus revolved around preserving such access rather than advocating for its extension through democratization. Instead of serving as a catalyst for political liberalization, the state used the process of economic reform to strengthen itself through co-optation, creating disincentives for reform beneficiaries to question the system sustaining the regime. Beyond the beneficiaries of privatization, Owen (1994, 193) remarks, “most sections of the Egyptian bourgeoisie… share an interest in the slow-paced economic reform as well as in preserving a system in which the workers and peasants are virtually disenfranchised and unrepresented at the political level.”

These developments relay the state’s imperative for undertaking reform and provide insight into how regime support was managed and maintained. By the early 1990s, fiscal crisis threatened the sustainability of the status quo. Relief came through a $25 billion debt relief package from the United States in return for Egypt’s support during the Gulf War and a structural adjustment program with the IMF and the World Bank. Against this backdrop, USAID began to develop plans for a democracy program in Egypt. One of USAID’s principal architects for its democracy program felt there were serious stakes to democracy in Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia in the early 1990s because of their importance regionally. Egypt, he recalls, was one of the early cases in which the agency tried to determine how to approach democracy on a global basis and develop programs reflecting the political context of the recipient aid country.

USAID’s decision to launch a program in Egypt followed its efforts to capitalize on developments in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. As no paradigm existed then for constructing democracy programs, Hyman devised four focus areas: elections and political participation; civil society; the rule of law; and governance. These areas anchored the agency’s programs and were chosen to reflect the current academic literatures on democratization and economic development. A 1990 agency policy paper announcing the launch of a “Democracy Initiative” provides insight into its early conceptions of democracy, laying out a broad framework for its promotion. While acknowledging inconclusive debates about the relationship between economic development and democracy, the paper emphasizes “democratic institutions and a strong democratic political culture can be highly supportive of efforts to address development problems and establish the basis for sustained economic growth”.

It also emphasizes that efforts to promote democracy should be seen as best achieved over time and through holistic integration with its existing programs. For example, the agency underscores the importance of input from field staff and those within USAID’s regional bureaus to ensure programs reflective of local needs and circumstances within a host country. Additionally, the paper underscores the importance of considering different paths and approaches in promoting democracy. It acknowledges that while American institutions may protect human rights and support good governance, other paths may be suitable, emphasizing, “the Democracy Initiative does not seek to impose the American model on developing countries”.

Existing efforts by the agency’s regional bureaus, then, to incorporate democracy projects provide early insight into discrepancies among bureaus on the subject of democracy. For example, the policy paper states that its Asia, Africa, and Latin America and Caribbean bureaus include specific allocations for human rights and democratic development within its budgets. For the Europe and Near East bureau, however, the paper indicates that its “special characteristics” and “special authorizations and earmarks may limit the scope for developing approaches in these two regions”.

In the case of Egypt, concerns about stability and whether the Egyptian government would move on any type of reform dominated agency discussions. Divisions existed among staff within USAID’s new Center of Democracy and Governance in Washington over the types of reform to push and conflicting objectives about the paths for their pursuit. While acknowledging the need for political reform, many felt stability and security were paramount. Others, however, advocated more pressure on the government in implementing reforms.

That Egypt was ambivalent about adopting reform was not unexpected. Indeed, tensions first encountered at the outset of USAID’s democracy program were a continuation of those existing since USAID’s general foreign assistance program began in Egypt. USAID’s possibilities for success were constrained by the nature of the frequently cited “special relationship” between the United States and Egypt. USAID’s democracy assistance to states is drawn from its development assistance funds. In Egypt, however, democracy-aid funding has been drawn from Economic Support Funds (ESF).

These funds were established under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, reflecting the US Congress’ contention that “under special economic, political, or security conditions, the national interest of the United States may require support for countries in amounts which could not be justified solely [for development purposes]”. Egypt and Israel are the largest recipients of ESF funding. Following the peace treaty between the two countries in 1979, the United States gave both significant assistance packages in recognition of diplomatic relations between both. Since 1979, Israel has received an average of $3 billion annually in US aid, with Egypt receiving nearly $2 billion. Terms of the assistance between both, however, vary. Israel’s aid consists of direct cash transfers to the government while Egypt’s aid must be directed toward specific programs agreed upon by the US and Egyptian governments.

Variance in this arrangement has long been a source of tension between both governments. A former USAID director in Egypt noted “the bulk of the ESF was supposed to go for projects built by US contractors; a smaller amount was for a commodity import program, to provide Egypt with essential imports from US suppliers; and a much smaller amount for a cash transfer, to give the Egyptians a little cold cash and AID a small level to try to move the government in the reform direction. The Egyptians greatly resented the arrangement: the flow of funds was slow, and highly controlled as to how the funds could be used and [which] they saw accruing to US firms.”

Most democracy aid distributed in Egypt fell under the areas of civil society and the rule of law in the early 1990s. Projects initiated in the early 1990s were not new but followed similar efforts begun the previous decade under the umbrella of development assistance. Further, they were framed in terms of their economic benefit. An Egyptian project manager at USAID recalls staff debates then revolved around market freedoms and privatization. He noted then that no one questioned the logic of this approach when both USAID and the World Bank were pushing privatization, nor did they consider improper management might be the problem or that workers’ rights were not incorporated into a democracy strategy. Indeed, as another Egyptian employee with USAID noted, “when you read the project papers for democracy at this time, they were all geared towards improving the investment and economic climate in Egypt.”

Former USAID Cairo staff felt that framing civil society, parliamentary reform programs, and other areas of democracy aid in terms of economic benefits reflected the United States’ support for Egypt’s economic reform program. Egyptian government officials resisted attempts to fund programs without explicit links to the economy. Such programs were never rejected or ended outright but negotiated to the point that USAID’s original objectives were diluted. The end result were programs seen as impotent from USAID’s perspective but often ones that ended up fulfilling an imperative of the Egyptian government. For example, USAID’s first attempt to fund a civil society project in 1993 took two years to negotiate with the government. In that period, USAID staff in Cairo worked to gather input from Egyptian and international NGOs on a new program with the idea of having stakeholders design a project together.

Discussions between Americans and Egyptians stalled over defining the terms of “civil society” and “participation” underlying the project, which varied significantly between the two. The USAID officer assigned to the project recalls that his Ministry of Interior counterparts were not interested in USAID’s proposed changes and devised their own program instead. The officer was excused from negotiations with the Egyptians and replaced by another USAID colleague backed by both the interior minister and President Mubarak. Rather than incite tension with the Egyptians, USAID compromised and abandoned some of its aims to maintain some semblance of a project. As the excused officer recalled, “I think the Mission people did what they felt they needed in order to continue negotiating with the government… this is Egypt and the program is going to be there no matter what. It is not a matter of ‘if’ you get the money, it is a matter of when.”

This tension characterized programs for the rest of the decade, regardless of the form of democracy aid pursued. For example, a rule of law project called the “Administration of Justice Project” (AOJS) launched in 1994, but actual implementation began years later. Rule of law projects were, in the words of an Egyptian USAID employee, “the flavor of the 1990s” in terms of agency preference. A former employee with AMIDEAST, the organization contracted to execute the project recalls, “that it took ten years for Egypt and the US government to agree on a statement of work says a lot about the reality of how much it took for the governments to be on the same page.” As with other projects, AOJS framed its expected benefits to democracy in economic terms. For example, USAID states “an improved court administration and an informed judiciary are essential elements without which democracy will falter and economic growth will be thwarted.” Further, USAID notes “as Egypt enters a period of economic re-structuring and privatization, there is pressing need for an efficient, predictable, and timely administration of justice”.

USAID’s assessment process to determine the suitability of the AOJS project for its democracy program in Egypt relays a narrow view of elements within Egyptian society it saw as beneficial for democracy. Assessment interviews were conducted with members representing the private sector. Discussions during these interviews, which were undertaken with the Chamber of Commerce and the Cairo Businessmen’s Association, “all indicate a strong interest and support from the private sector for judicial reform in procedures and regulations that adversely affect growth of private enterprise… their comments are a positive indication of political commitment to reform”.

At the end of the decade, USAID resurrected another idea to fund a more robust civil society program in Egypt with an explicit shift in funding for such aid under democracy activities. In 1997, it established an advisory board to gather opinions on possible activities reflecting its new strategic objectives of increasing civil society participation and promoting an improved environment for democracy. In 1998, USAID issued a competitive Request for Applications (RFA) to establish and manage an NGO Service Center designed to increase civil society participation “by building strong organizations capable of voicing citizen concerns, increase the frequency with which they voice them, and to secure recognition of civil society as a legitimate voice in decision-making.”

A contractor for that project recalled that as the first explicit democracy project for civil society, anxiety existed about the Egyptian government’s response to its establishment. Any initial trepidation the Egyptian government had at the project’s outset dissipated. Egypt’s Minister of Social Affairs dissolved a steering committee of USAID and Egyptian government representatives meant to give policy advice and project guidance, seeing no need for its continuance. The prospects for reform and space for civil society seemed ripe. As USAID began reviewing project applications, civil society activists were already engaged in a dialogue with the Egyptian government to change Law 32, which governed civic associations and was seen as outdated.

For the first time, the Egyptian government sought input from activists and NGO leaders in constructing a new law, a process viewed by many with optimism in reversing years of government suspicion toward civil society. USAID’s project was delayed for two years and its objectives diluted in response to developments with the NGO law. Despite consultations with civil society members and the illusion of government concessions to civil society, the government ultimately replaced Law 32 with the more restrictive Law 84, which banned registration to NGOs “whose activities involve political or trade union like activities which are exclusively restricted to political parties or unions.” USAID’s contracting director for the project recalls that the US ambassador was using the project as leverage for a better NGO law; in the process, consequent modifications diluted the scope of the project’s activities. For example, while the program aimed to “increase citizen’s participation in decision-making,” it was altered to the less aggressive sounding “supporting NGOs and development.” Activities that may have enhanced political participation were removed and those filling a development function useful to the Egyptian government were retained. In the end, according to the director, “USAID decided not to be an extra political liability so they watered [the program] down to what the Ministry would accept. We were told to keep the initial vision, but to be more low profile in supporting it.”

Continuity and the Illusion of Change: Democracy Aid after 2002

Democracy-aid funding in Egypt increased annually from $22 million during the 1990s to $75 million by 2005, following the Bush administration’s more aggressive approach to democracy in the region. As the most populous state in the Arab world and one regarded for its leadership role in the region, Egypt became the focus of the administration’s efforts. Initially, Washington’s actions suggested its intention to apply more pressure to the regime. Extra democracy funding came through the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a small grants initiative administered by the State Department through the US Embassy in Cairo.

Before 2004, no mechanism existed to ensure the Egyptian government used US funds for democracy. An amendment sponsored by US Senator Brownback that year, however, gave USAID’s Cairo Mission full oversight of funds allocated for democracy, removing the Egyptian government’s power to determine how such funds would be spent. Previously, democracy programs administered through a bilateral agreement with the Government of Egypt (GOE) had been designed in close collaboration between both governments. In many cases, a GOE representative served on panels to select the contractor implementing democracy projects.

As a result of the Brownback amendment, USAID added a direct grants program to its democracy program enabling organizations to approach USAID for assistance. USAID only informed the GOE after local and international civil society organizations received grants. Though intended to deliver aid without Egyptian government inference, an audit by USAID’s Office of the Inspector General documented instances in which the government compromised program objectives. For example, “one grantee endured a six-month delay in beginning activities because the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSA) did not approve the project’s activities with other civil society organizations… [and] the Egyptian government cancelled a grantee’s training event without providing any reasons for the decision. The grantee had planned training events focused on corruption and political reform activities. As a result, the grantee had to find alternative ways to continue its activities”.

Such examples relay the Egyptian government’s ability to challenge programs it found threatening, despite changes to the administration of democracy assistance. In 2006, for example, Egypt’s government asked two American organizations, NDI and IRI, to cease operations, accusing them of interference. The request followed comments made by IRI’s director in an interview saying that the government had not undertaken any political reform. The government’s response demonstrated its dexterity in containing opposition. It could have forced both organizations to leave the country—given how well connected both organizations are in Washington, however, that move may have been too provocative. All foreign organizations must register with the government, a process that may be stalled for many reasons. A diplomat relayed an example of this: An organization has sixty days to register and on day fifty-nine the government may request extra documentation or have an inquiry, which would then restart the clock. Egypt never gave formal registration to NDI or IRI. The incident suggests a procedure giving Egypt leeway so that organizations it deems problematic would be easy to reject or dismiss under this line rather than draw attention that could be construed as political.

Such actions demonstrate the increasing politicization of US democracy aid and the ability for a strategically important state and ally to challenge programs it found threatening or dilute programs to maintain components useful to the state. Despite ensuing publicity and incensed calls from US Congressional members and Egyptian civil society to cut aid or impose conditionality, aid—military, economic, and that for democracy—continued to flow to the regime.

US Assistance for Democracy in Morocco

Like Egypt, Morocco entered the 1990s on uncertain economic footing. In the late 1970s and early 80s, the cost of financing a war with the Polisario front and declining phosphate prices following reduced oil prices worldwide created a strain on the government and on the ability of the population to survive. In 1981, a severe drought pushed the country into its most serious economic crisis to date, with disastrous effects on Morocco’s economy, forcing the state to adopt a structural adjustment program . Surviving the fiscal crisis necessitated a new development strategy that forced the palace to reorganize its power through the extension and contraction of liberal reforms to protect a system of rule established by King Hassan II. Though Morocco’s constitution describes the state as a constitutional monarchy with an independent judiciary, all power lies with the king. The king appoints (and can dismiss) the prime minister, the cabinet, and the governors of Morocco’s provinces. He can dissolve the parliament, call for new elections, revise the constitution, and declare a state of emergency. The monarchy’s legitimacy is linked to its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, as well as its symbolic representation of the state’s struggle for independence from France.

Since independence, the institution of Morocco’s monarchy has been described as “an evolving political construction” to denote its development and relationship with Moroccan society. The regime’s base traditionally derives its support from Morocco’s rural notables. Central to this strategy is the makhzen, or the network of elites who control “bureaucratic, administrative, and infrastructural power and therefore the state’s power”. This “makhzenian” system, created postindependence, became the most important ideological and institutional component of Hassan II’s legacy, ensuring support and deference to the monarchy through co-optation and fragmentation of the opposition. Though a multiparty system was established, political parties have been fragmented with little ability to pressure the monarchy. The king set this design to maintain rivalry between different groups so as to “appear as both indispensable mediator and unique source of favors and prebends”.

Austerity measures implemented in response to fiscal crisis during the 1980s sparked opposition from workers to which the palace responded with arrests, jailing opposition leaders, and suspending party newspapers . The palace did not acquiesce easily to demands for more political freedoms. As Lust (2005, 130-31) notes, the palace was more willing to concede economic reforms to the opposition, reducing price increases and “dangling the hope of greater political inclusion” in exchange for not participating in future strikes. A fiscal crisis in 1990 forced the government to enact another structural adjustment program, prompting strikes and riots in Morocco’s larger cities. The king responded with more extensions to the opposition, inviting members to join the government and negotiating with the unions. Overcoming past divisions, members of five opposition parties formed the Kutla (block), to pressure the palace to revise the constitution and reinforce both the parliament and the prime minister’s power. The palace rejected their demands and again attempted to co-opt dissatisfaction by offering Kutla‘s leaders cabinet ministries. This dynamic between the opposition and the palace continued throughout the 1990s. The result was the gradual extension of liberal reforms marked by reversals when the palace perceived its stability or interests at risk.

Economic and political reforms initiated in the early 1990s were followed by the palace’s attempt to address its human rights record for the first time. For years, governments and human rights organizations criticized the state for abuses, particularly the condition of political prisoners held at the prison in Tazmamart, the existence of which the palace had denied for years. After pressure from abroad, notably the US government, Hassan II released political prisoners and closed Tazmamart. The palace’s adoption of economic and political reforms and its acknowledgement of past human rights violations suggested the embrace not only of a new development path but also of a more liberal era for the palace.

This context sparked USAID’s initial interest in starting a democracy program in Morocco. The former director of USAID’s Office of Democracy and Governance recalls his support for such a program, citing Hassan II’s actions then as signaling a tide of change. He recommended establishing a rule of law program first, given the absence of similar openings elsewhere in the region and the United States’ leverage with the king. Support, though, was not unanimous between USAID Washington and its Rabat Mission, whose director was reluctant to establish a democracy program. This hesitancy may have reflected a desire to limit US pressure to the regime’s human rights record, given Morocco’s contribution of troops in 1991 to the US coalition in Iraq and its moderate views on regional issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict. Eventually, recalls USAID’s former Democracy Office director, a deal was “cut” in which “Washington agreed not to push bureaucratically for democracy to the US Mission in Morocco and the Bureau for Near East Affairs in exchange for the right to look at this [issue] again and revise [it] for the next country plan.”

Democracy programs that began in the 1990s mirrored the orientation of those in Egypt. Initial strategy and concept papers for the program relay the agency’s vision of democracy as one inextricably linked first with economic reform, which would remain during that decade. In 1994, USAID began integrating democracy into its objectives for encouraging economic growth in Morocco. The first project was a $19 million Financial Markets Development (FMD) project, whose purpose was “to increase and diversify the sources of finance needed by Moroccan private enterprises at all levels of the economy, i.e. large, medium, small, and micro enterprises”. The project aimed to increase the number of shareholders of publicly held stocks, described as supportive to democratization in Morocco.

The approach taken at this juncture with its emphasis on establishing support for market reform may have reflected caution on USAID’s part. Given the state then of Morocco’s economy, the agency may have felt it had more latitude in promoting and shaping its particular vision of reform. Introducing reforms pushing for more explicit political liberalization when Morocco was undergoing adjustment may have threatened stabilization and risked alienating the regime from future efforts. USAID’s program orientation may also have been an attempt to push for an open door. Morocco’s incentives for cooperating with USAID went beyond ensuring domestic stability. Efforts to strengthen relations with its European neighbors were then underway, and USAID’s programs may have been oriented to mirror similar efforts to capitalize on Morocco’s desire to project itself abroad as amenable to both economic and political liberalization.

By 1995, for example, Morocco was accelerating economic reforms within the country and enhancing trade and diplomatic relations with Europe by joining the Barcelona Process. Morocco’s participation in that process and its subsequent discussions to implement free trade agreements with the EU and the United States signaled openness to economic integration and the political reform ideas pushed by both actors. Other developments relayed the king’s willingness to expand further the political arena. In 1996, the king’s policy of alternance was adopted, referring to reforms “to allow the formation of governments based on any coalition of parties in parliament, such as one formed by a center-left coalition, rather than, as had been the case so far, governments formed by loyalist right wing parties”.

Prominent members of Morocco’s opposition returned from exile shortly after. Both the EU and the United States applauded this development, seeing alternance as the regime’s first major political opening and a sign to continue the orientation of its democracy program. Little attention, though, was given in project and strategy reports to the motivations and context for the launch of alternance. As Martin-Munoz (2000, 97-98) relays, the reforms that followed were motivated by multiple factors ranging from the country’s economic crisis, the persistence of the Western Sahara conflict, enhanced economic relations with Europe, and the king’s desire to leave a stable political legacy to his successor. Alternance thus represented more than a desire to liberalize the kingdom but a decision made to ensure the regime’s economic and political survival.

USAID’s democracy program continued to focus on privatization and other components of economic reform, mirroring the palace’s own reform agenda. For the first time, however, agency strategy reports began to detail the uneven process of economic reform and the effects of change generated by the reform vision it supported. Regarding the pace of economic reform in the country, one report notes reforms to date “have been disproportionately adverse for small farmers and the rural agricultural labor force, the urban unemployed, the under employed, and women… financial markets are not delivering access to credit in an efficient or equitable manner—lower income groups are crowded out by the demands of established, well-connected private businesses and public enterprises”. Despite these observations, program orientations changed little, and no objections were raised with the government about the distribution of economic reforms. Indeed, as a Moroccan USAID employee then recalled, an unquestioned assumption existed that benefits from Morocco’s economic reforms would eventually be distributed throughout society.

US Democracy Aid in Morocco from 2002-10

Despite the expanded focus on democracy in the region after 2002, USAID’s emphasis on economic growth continued to dominate the orientation of its democracy program in Morocco. Shortly before 2001, though, budget cuts in Washington forced USAID to consider cutting its Morocco program. As a former democracy officer recalls, the king was able to lobby successfully for its continuance, viewing USAID’s presence both as an important symbol of US cooperation and as a critical source of potential resources with which to leverage against its dominant EU trading partners. Post-September 11 concerns about security and terrorist bombings in Casablanca prompted the expansion of democracy programs, though ones continuing to mirror the palace’s own reform agenda. A Moroccan USAID employee noted a shift in that programs previously oriented toward development became political due to heavy influence then coming from Washington. Despite little tension with the government in executing democracy programs, a “branding waiver” was made for the agency’s Parliamentary Reform Project. Typically, USAID demonstrates program ownership through stickers on equipment purchased or in publications. The agency’s democracy officer at that time recalls the waiver was done to avoid political baggage with the Moroccan government.

In 2005, the US-based organization RTI won a local governance project contract for training and giving technical assistance to regional audit courts, designing and implementing a national budgeting system, and facilitating access to long-term financing. One component of the project called “Cities without Slums” launched to improve living conditions in shantytowns or relocate residents to formal neighborhoods. After the Casablanca bombings, the palace amplified its efforts to eradicate slums, seeing their growth as a security threat and a potential incubator of extremism. Focusing on slum eradication thus addressed a security issue close to both Morocco and the United States. A practitioner in Rabat criticized the orientation of such programs to address slums. For him, such programs are unsustainable and fail to address substantive issues underlying their persistence, such as the lack of jobs and escalating unemployment.

These neglected dimensions of Morocco’s reform program seldom feature in the agency’s project, policy, and strategy reports for its democracy program. The only suggestion that democracy programs oriented to support the palace’s reform agenda might be strengthening rather challenging the regime came in a 2001 USAID commissioned democracy assessment. A scholar of Moroccan politics conducted the assessment and criticized the entire orientation of the agency’s program. His criticism centered on the agency’s focus on decentralization as part of its democracy strategy and challenged its link to political reform in the country. In Morocco, he explains, “the process of decentralization is not driven primarily by political considerations—that is, by a desire to empower populations at the local level and increase the autonomy of communities and regions… authorities seem interested in that process only to the extent that it can serve as a vehicle through which economic development might be spurred”.

The assessment recommends discontinuing decentralization as a component of democracy aid, given USAID’s limited resources and the slow pace of decentralization relative to other forms of democracy aid. This pace, the report notes, is not likely to change because of “strong inertia, the centralized mind-set of key decision makers, and the resistance of powerful interests that would be threatened by genuine decentralization”. Decentralization programs were not cut, however, and continue to comprise a core component of the agency’s democracy program in Morocco.

Democracy Aid after the Arab Uprisings

Over the last decade, the United States devoted significant resources toward democracy promotion in the Middle East, with little impact. Case studies of efforts in Egypt and Morocco, two of the highest recipients of US democracy funding in the region illuminate reasons for this dynamic, focusing on how the United States conceptualized democracy and the motivations and capabilities for both states to challenge aid efforts. In both states, democracy programs were framed in terms of their economic benefit. This orientation reflected an institutional preference for a market-oriented democracy, as well as a strategy used to sell democracy programs to resistant regimes. Their ability to resist this strategy and dilute programs to their benefit was shaped by their level of dependence and strategic importance to the United States.

How important is dependency in understanding an authoritarian regime’s ability to resist democracy-aid programs? Evidence from both cases suggests dependency matters but that it is contingent on the availability of other potential patrons to act as a surrogate for donor aid. As a strategically important and dependent state, Egypt was able to challenge US efforts to promote democracy. Insulated by its strategic value, the regime could resist such efforts in order to extract benefits for its own purposes without fear of punishment. Morocco’s lower strategic value to and dependence on the United States also enabled it to evade pressures for greater political reforms, as shown. However, in contrast with Egypt, European assistance exceeded that from the United States, offering a potential leverage point for the state to use against a form of aid it found too threatening. Lacking this relationship, the United States would be hesitant to push Morocco aggressively on reform and risk losing a foothold from which to advocate for reform even if limited.

These dynamics suggest evidence of the limits of linkage politics and foreign aid. They also provide insight into why democracy efforts have been limited, through both the conceptualization of democracy promoted and the subsequent dilutions regimes were able to make to aid programs. If the conception of democracy-guiding strategies in both states has been oriented in this way, then the question of the quality of democracy promoted in supporting this mode warrants further attention from scholars, especially after the 2011 Arab uprisings.

While this study’s analysis focused on the 1990-2010 era, events and regime responses since the uprisings suggest the continuation of these dynamics. Rather than increase after 2011, US democracy aid has been restrained, while military and security assistance has expanded. USAID tried to expand its democracy support in Egypt months after the uprisings with a $65 million Egyptian Transitions Support Project. In the ambiguous early stages of the transition, USAID did not seek approval from the Egyptian government but said that relevant government ministries were informed after the fact. In the months thereafter, the Egyptian government pushed back hard against the program, calling it a violation of sovereignty and insisting that recipient organizations had not registered with the government as required by law. A subsequent government investigation culminated in raids, the closures of NGO offices, and the trial and conviction of forty-three NGO workers, including sixteen Americans.

The NGO crisis as it became known, was cited as a major crisis in US-Egyptian relations. Despite protests from the US government and Congressional members and threats to withhold aid, no punitive measures were taken against the Egyptian government. In the end, the Egyptian military and the United States struck a deal. A private plane flew six Americans from Cairo after the United States posted their bail and that for nine other Americans charged outside of Egypt for a total of $4.8 million. The $1.3 billion in military aid that had been held up in preceding months was released thereafter. Reflecting the government’s resistance to such activities and the United States’ desire to preserve its security relationship, democracy aid continues, though at substantially reduced levels from the pre-2011 era, with many programs now conducted outside Egypt.

In Morocco, US democracy programming remains far less politicized. Despite this, programs have not been augmented, a point which observers find surprising given Morocco’s response to the Arab uprisings. In early 2011, Morocco’s king acted quickly to diffuse protests in the country, initiating constitutional reforms that placed some formal limits on his power, such as making the judiciary independent and allowing the prime minister to be appointed from the largest party elected to parliament. How substantive such reforms will be, though, remains to be seen.

Those working on US democracy programs in Morocco after the uprisings note that, while a warmer reception and space for such programs existed, the funding available remained modest. Despite this shift, the United States was reluctant to push for more expansive programming. Interviews with diplomats and aid practitioners engaged in such efforts in Morocco and Washington link that reluctance to the erosion of regional security and the desire to maintain Morocco as a key ally. As a diplomat commented in 2012, “Morocco’s a tough sell—It’s recently joined the Security Council and the US needs its help for dealing with broader security concerns, especially for pressure on Syria.” Cognizant of its renewed utility to US security interests, the regime has been able to deflect pressure for reform. An American aid practitioner working on democracy programs in the country underscored this point, differing from dynamics in Egypt. In his words, “Turmoil in the region is used to the benefit of the palace… Morocco is very happy not to have too much US assistance and to be beholden to conditions/pressure that might come with it. EU programs are much bigger. The EU, France, Spain—these relationships far outweigh the US.”

During the uprisings, USAID’s existing strategy in Morocco was under review. The strategy produced thereafter, for 2013-17, shows a marked diminution of democracy programming, with governance rather than democracy as the mission’s core development objective. A USAID employee, echoing sentiments of a colleague posted there a decade earlier, commented on such a shift, noting the pressure her colleagues faced to orient and pitch prospective democracy projects in ways to secure Washington’s support for more funding. She noted in particular that their administrator only received a positive reception in DC when talking about counterviolence programs. Consequently, democracy programs became stretched to embrace components more aligned with the security imperatives of Washington and those of the Moroccan regime. As an American aid practitioner observed in 2012, “things are more open but [democracy] programs are losing their potency; the regime is very happy to carry on having things like dialogues or conferences about democracy. All of it has become watered down and not very threatening.”


Scholars have paid insufficient attention to the fact that democracy-aid programs are often negotiated deals. Because authoritarian regimes may choose how to accept aid, democracy aid may reward economic interests tied to incumbent regimes. Programs that appear to scholars as reform-minded thus may actually entrench nondemocratic regimes. Overarching lessons from the Egyptian and Moroccan cases suggest that dependency and strategic importance matter in shaping a donor’s ability to pressure recipient authoritarian states. Egypt showcases how, when strong geopolitical constraints operate, democracy programs are more likely to reflect the economic and security imperatives of the donor and recipient state rather than those of civil society. Morocco suggests that, even in the absence of high strategic value, having a more diverse portfolio of foreign assistance may give a state more leeway in negotiating the construction and composition of democracy-aid programs with a donor state.

Many scholars of international peacekeeping think that they prove more effective when they involve some element of “local ownership” over the process or are otherwise adapted to local contexts. Democracy-aid programs that privilege local context and input seem more likely in states that are highly dependent on US donor aid but have low strategic value. More possibilities would exist in such states for programs to be driven by and responsive to local context. Such states are ideal cases for scholars to test whether democracy programs therein are responsive to local input and concerns. These claims await further empirical testing but point to a promising area for scholars to explore toward understanding how democracy aid works in hybrid regimes beyond the Middle East. Furthermore, my findings suggest that democracy assistance may be most effective if carried out through coordinated multilateral efforts. This will make it hard for recipients to leverage exit options while constraining donors from prioritizing their strategic interests. Such an approach may also gain more support from elements of civil society. Of course, multilateral approaches will require not just shared policy goals but also common commitments to timeframes for meeting democratic reforms.

Another approach might be to shift away from the focus on political reforms that underlies most US programs. In conversations with me, Egyptian and Moroccan actors engaged in democracy programming often suggested that it would help their efforts if US assistance went more to traditional development projects that address, say education or health. Investments in such areas in middle-income states like Egypt and Morocco, they argue, helps create the foundations for democracy.

Reorienting US democracy aid in the Middle East, and in other authoritarian contexts, to focus on these approaches, though, is complicated by institutional challenges within the US foreign aid bureaucracy. USAID staff in both countries spoke of pressure to alter projects to reflect the short-term political interests of decision makers in Washington. Projects often become disconnected from reality, with metrics of “success” designed solely to satisfy Congress. My interlocutors speak of democracy promotion as a decades-long effort, yet most practitioners and diplomats acknowledge little patience in Congress for programs requiring consistency and long time-horizons. This tension is fundamental to the political economy of democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East; it remains an important, underexplored terrain for democracy-aid scholars.