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Today's news from Egypt, where the offices of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute were raided along with several other civil society organizations*, should prompt swift action from the U.S. Congress when it returns from the holidays.
Unlike many other regional analysts, I am not terribly upset by U.S. military aid to regimes in the Middle East: this aid, in theory, gives the United States influence over the behavior of regimes and institutions in the region -- and also professionalizes Arab military organizations. But the United States has an opportunity to support the promotion of democracy in the region by linking military aid to the development of civil society. Egypt receives approximately $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the United States. The Congress should include a clause to the effect that regimes will not be eligible for U.S. military aid if organizations funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (such as the NDI and the IRI) cannot operate free from host government harassment. The Egyptian military claims organizations like the NDI and the IRI "meddle" in the affairs of Egypt. Well, $1.3 billion in military aid also "meddles" in the affairs of Egypt. If you want the latter, you should be prepared to accept the former as well.**
I have written about the sources of U.S. leverage in the Middle East. I do not think the problem is that the United States does not have leverage but that it has been incompetent in using it. The United States now has an opportunity to use it in Egypt. And even if the Egyptian military declines U.S. military aid (unlikely), the United States will have sent a strong signal that democracy promotion is a strategic goal of the United States in the region and that allied regimes should adjust their behavior. I might not have recommended such a gambit in 2010, but I think the events of 2011 mean the United States has to play by new rules in the region.
*Reports from Cairo indicate the other organizations were the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions (ACIJP), The Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, Freedom House and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
**Military aid comes from a different pool of money than does other aid. One of the problems the United States has using its leverage is that the right hand often does not know what the left hand is doing. So the Dept. of Defense might be doing one thing while U.S. AID is doing another. Foreign governments know all about the fault lines and divisions in the U.S. government and exploit them. They bet (correctly) the U.S. government will not be able to come up with a whole-of-government approach. The U.S. Congress, though, can step in here and tie one set of activities to another by federal law.