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Democracy, Human Rights in the Federal Budget Request for the MENA region



WASHINGTON- On April 13, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs assessed President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.


With a 9 percent increase in the request over the Fiscal Year 2015 actual spending figures, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) in his opening remarks said the biggest foreign policy challenges are from this region, and not just war and terrorism.


Despite his appreciation for the President’s efforts, he emphasized that human rights “must always be a part of the conversation, even when difficult.”


As Egypt’s human rights crisis continued “unabated,” the Human Rights Watch World Report 2015 stated cases of protester killings and impunity, mass arrests, due process violations and mass death sentences by a regime that Cole Bockenfeld termed “repressive.”

As Egypt’s human rights crisis continued “unabated,” the Human Rights Watch World Report 2015 stated cases of protester killings and impunity, mass arrests, due process violations and mass death sentences by a regime that Cole Bockenfeld termed “repressive.”

Prior to POMED, he worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) on electoral assistance in the region including in Morocco, Iraq, and Lebanon. “I think it makes very clear to a lot of people what the US priority is if you give over $1.3 billion to the military and you give around $150 million to the people,” he said.


In December 2014, the US Congress introduced a new language in governing military aid to Egypt, waiving the requisite for a “democratic transition” if it is “in the interest of national security.”


The Obama administration has also called for a waiver to the long-standing human rights conditions on aid to Egypt at a time where the country faces a series of human rights violations.


“It’s business as usual. The relationship doesn’t change no matter how bad the Egyptian military’s behavior gets, the US isn’t willing to withdraw or change our support for them,” said Bockenfeld. “You can say, ‘Look, all that does is buy planes and tanks and by no means is an approval of the politics.’ I think Egyptian people look at that government and look at the support and say you know you are supporting politics.”

“It’s business as usual. The relationship doesn’t change no matter how bad the Egyptian military’s behavior gets, the US isn’t willing to withdraw or change our support for them,” said Bockenfeld. “You can say, ‘Look, all that does is buy planes and tanks and by no means is an approval of the politics.’ I think Egyptian people look at that government and look at the support and say you know you are supporting politics.”

The Fiscal Year 2017 budget request for Egypt consists of a total bilateral assistance of $1.46 billion with $1.3 billion million allocated to peace and security.


With Tunisia ranking further down in the list of budget priorities, Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-FL) at an April 2016 budget hearing said Tunisia needs support “to ensure that it remains in the transition toward democracy, yet the administration does not appear to be making a successful transition a priority in this request.”


Bockenfeld cited Tunisia as a primary candidate for the assistance where the government faces “mounting economic and security challenges, and has shown a real desire to work with the US to help meet those challenges.”


The budget request appropriated a total bilateral assistance of $140.4 million to Tunisia with $50.7 million for economic growth.


“The longer these [economic] needs go unfulfilled the more frustrated and impatient people get and begin to make conclusions that democracy doesn’t work because it didn’t address what was promised to us,” he said.


In terms of a democratic transition in Syria, Bockenfeld added that the budget request for $14 million for “political competition and consensus building” would create space for the “non-violent groups” to engage in the country’s political system.

“I think currently it’s the lower level kind of issues especially in working with local councils in Syria in the liberated areas, trying to build their capacity to function as local governments, to pick up the trash and keep the lights on and keep the schools open. All the basic functions of a government,” said Bockenfeld.


“Using the significant leverage that we have with all these governments that are very dependent on the US for their security and for their economies and aid, we have to say look, you have to start opening up and you have to reform societies because we are going to form relationships not just with you but your people,” he said.

Image courtesy: Protesters in Sidi Bouzid calling for Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki to leave their town in December, 2012. (FETHI BELAID / AFP / Getty Images)

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