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In 2011, dramatic uprisings swept across the Middle East and North Africa, forcing several of the region’s authoritarian rulers from power and bringing hopes that the stagnation and despotism that has long dominated Arab politics would give way to more accountable, responsive, and democratic governments. Four years later, those hopes have largely vanished, as democratic transitions have been replaced by resurgent authoritarianism and widespread violent conflicts.

In terms of the U.S. approach to the region, the picture is similar: in 2011, many hoped for a fundamental re-orientation of U.S. policy that would support the emergence of accountable, democratic governments as the best opportunity both for sustaining stability in the region and for preserving U.S. interests. Four years later, these hopes have essentially vanished, with the U.S. government returning to the corrupt bargain of partnering closely with repressive regimes in pursuit of stability that characterized the pre-2011 era.

As the U.S. government has increasingly focused on partnering with repressive authoritarian regimes in the fight against the Islamic State, the ability of the United States to effectively support democracy, governance, and human rights in the region has diminished. The U.S. is even less willing to undertake any measures opposed by authoritarian U.S. allies in the region and has less energy and resources to devote to issues beyond the military and security realm. Although the current overall trajectory of the United States on issues of democracy and governance in the region is not encouraging, there are nonetheless some positive signs that can be built on in the future, including an overdue increase in aid to support Tunisia’s transition, as well as a number of steps to regularize assistance mechanisms to adapt to changes underway since 2011.


  • U.S. policy and foreign assistance in the Middle East and North Africa is currently becoming even more dominated by military and security issues. The emergence of the Islamic State as a new regional security threat has refocused top-level U.S. government attention on military approaches to security issues. A higher proportion of U.S. assistance to the MENA region today is budgeted for military and security assistance than was the case in 2010, despite public discussion in 2011 of “rebalancing” aid to the region in the opposite direction. The increased attention and resources on military and security issues have also clearly diverted high-level policy attention away from support for democracy and human rights in the region.
  • The efforts of governments across the region to crack down on independent civil society have had a significant effect on U.S. policymakers. Across the region, Arab governments are using a variety of tools to harass, impede, restrict, threaten, and shut down independent civil society organizations. These efforts have had a profound effect on many organizations, with some being forced to close down, cease operations, or work from outside the country. In addition, U.S. government support for independent civil society has become much more cautious than in the past, driven by both a desire to avoid antagonizing allied host governments and a fear of endangering local participants in programming.
  • U.S. democracy and governance programming in the MENA region is shifting its focus toward issues of governance at the local level rather than the national level. Over the past year or more, there has been a steady move in the direction of more U.S. support for democracy and governance programming focused on the local rather than national level. This attention on local governance can be important in laying the groundwork for democratic change from the ground up. In the longer term, however, if such efforts are to ultimately succeed in fostering democracy, they must be accompanied by moves to pressure national governments to empower local institutions.
  • The FY16 budget demonstrates a welcome effort to regularize U.S. assistance mechanisms rather than continuing to rely on ad hoc and reactive funding instruments. Since 2011, the administration has continually struggled to align assistance with rapidly changing regional realities. In the FY16 budget, the administration has obviously made efforts to consolidate funding into more permanent accounts and structures. These changes should facilitate better planning and coordination of assistance efforts and also relieve policymakers from scrambling each year to cobble together unspent funds from other accounts, while reducing frustrating uncertainty for recipients of assistance in such countries.
  • This year’s budget request doubles bilateral assistance allocated for Tunisia, a deserved and overdue step. In the FY16 budget, the administration doubles its bilateral request for Tunisia to $134.4 million, which includes proposed funding increases for democracy and governance programming, economic growth initiatives, as well as security assistance. While this is an important step, further increases to Tunisia’s aid package remain warranted, as well as the signing of a multi-year MOU to govern assistance, as the U.S. government has done with key allies in the region including Israel, Egypt, and Jordan.
  • Some important preliminary steps have finally been taken that could open the door to important changes to the U.S.-Egypt assistance relationship. Recent White House announcements on military aid to Egypt including two potentially important steps that could pave the way for a long-overdue modernization of the U.S. military aid package to Egypt: the end of cash flow financing privileges and the creation of four new categories for U.S. military aid to Egypt: counterterrorism, border security, maritime security, and Sinai security. These changes should also make the assistance relationship more flexible in the future, allowing for further reforms in response to unexpected events in the country.
  • U.S. policymakers are increasingly interested in domestic political issues in Algeria, driven by uncertainty regarding President Bouteflika’s health and the future of the country’s leadership. Algeria has never been a large recipient of U.S. assistance, and most forms of democracy and governance programming are difficult if not impossible to carry out. Nonetheless, there is a growing sense among officials, analysts, and implementers that some sort of political transition is essentially already underway in the country, due to Bouteflika’s failing health. U.S. officials are taking an increasing interest in Algeria, motivated in part by a desire not to repeat the mistakes made by U.S. policymakers in Egypt and elsewhere who were caught entirely unprepared for political changes in 2011.

Stephen McInerney is Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He previously served as POMED’s Advocacy Director from 2007 to 2010. He has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa, including graduate studies of Middle Eastern politics, history, and the Arabic language at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including BBC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and CBS News. His writing on Middle East affairs and U.S. policy has been published by Foreign Affairs, the Daily Star, the New Republic, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post. He received a Master’s degree from Stanford University.

Cole Bockenfeld is the Advocacy Director at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He has studied the Middle East and global diplomacy at the University of Arkansas, Georgetown University, and the University of London. Prior to joining POMED, he worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) on electoral assistance programs in Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and the West Bank and Gaza, including fieldwork in Beirut and Baghdad. He also conducted research with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Amman. His writing on Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy has been published by the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including the New York Times, NPR, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Al-Jazeera, and Alhurra.

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