A year has passed since Mohammed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit seller, set himself on fire to protest the difficult economic conditions he faced and the humiliation he experienced at the hands of local police. Bouazizi’s protest was personal, but it resonated with millions of people across Tunisia and the Middle East who identified with his suffering and his defiance. Across the region, people took to the streets, calling for political and economic reform. They expressed frustration with high unemployment, deteriorating living conditions, and a lack of economic opportunity. They called for transparency and accountability from their governments and a greater say in the decisions affecting their lives. They stood up and demanded basic rights in a region long dominated by authoritarian governments.
“Nobody could have predicted what the spark for large-scale demonstrations would be or how quickly and widely these demonstrations would spread, but the seeds of discontent were evident across the region in growing labor strikes, protests over socio-economic conditions, and public outcries over regime brutality and corruption,” said Shannon Green, USAID’s regional coordinator for the Middle East in the Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. “Adding fuel to the fire, citizens feared that shifts in leadership might not lead to real change, as leaders seemed intent on hand-picking their successors.”
Since January 2011, when protestors poured onto the capital streets of Tunis, USAID has been at the forefront in supporting peaceful transitions in the Middle East and responding to the legitimate aspirations of citizens across the Arab world. The Agency’s work is part of a comprehensive U.S. Government approach.
“Through our development work, USAID is helping to mitigate disruptions that jeopardize full transitions, while supporting the reform efforts that are essential for the promises of the Arab Spring to be fully realized and sustained,” said Mara Rudman, USAID’s assistant administrator for the Middle East. “Arab Spring” refers to the street protests throughout the Middle East that followed Tunisia’s demonstrations.
As a development agency, USAID is well-placed to respond to the ongoing political and economic transitions in the region. Decades of investment in economies, societies, and institutions across the Arab world have enabled the Agency to forge strong relationships with people on the ground.
“USAID was able to shift our assistance and draw on flexible mechanisms to respond to the dramatic changes across the region,” says Sarah Mendelson, deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.
Including all Tunisians
USAID was one of the first donors on the ground in Tunisia, providing over $19 million in support of Tunisia’s transition toward democracy, in addition to $3 million for humanitarian assistance, as part of a broader U.S. aid effort that has totaled over $32 million to date. The Agency’s activities have focused on helping political parties develop, and engaging citizens in the political reform process. Primarily working with new and existing civil society organizations, USAID is supporting Tunisian-led efforts to ensure a successful transition.
Following the revolution, USAID conducted a series of on-the-ground assessments as well as broad outreach to civil society, youth, and women to evaluate the priorities and needs expressed by Tunisians. These consultations played a critical role in developing timely and targeted programming in Tunisia post-revolution.
Through this assessment process, USAID listened to the needs expressed by people both in the capital, Tunis, and in the country’s interior and border areas. Because Tunisia’s revolution began in these interior areas, USAID has recognized that a fully successful transition requires an inclusive process that involves all Tunisians. Therefore, while much work has focused on the capital, USAID is also working in historically marginalized regions.
Egypt’s Agents of Change
In Cairo and throughout Egypt’s cities and towns, three weeks of sustained protests brought about the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign on Feb. 11, 2011. Within days of the revolution, USAID moved to reprogram $165 million for democracy, governance, and economic growth projects to support the country’s transition to democracy.
Under the Egyptian Transition Support Program, USAID grants have supported activities in democratic development that Egyptians themselves identified as essential. Activities include work in civic engagement and awareness; elections and political processes; access to justice and human rights; and transparency and accountability. In tandem, USAID provided grants to support economic growth in areas that Egyptians prioritized, including job creation, economic development, and poverty alleviation.
“This was a tectonically important and historic moment for the Egyptian people. Our intention was to demonstrate in a tangible way, beyond words, that we were here to support them,” said Jim Bever, who was USAID/Egypt mission director at the time.
In Egypt, the Agency made extraordinary efforts to reach out to a broad range of people and organizations, including current Egyptian partners and new actors mobilized by the year’s events. In the months following the revolution, USAID held 10 information sessions for Egyptian civil society organizations to familiarize them with USAID funding processes. These sessions, held in Arabic and English in a number of cities, were attended by approximately 2,500 people from over 1,000 organizations, many of which had never applied for USAID funding before.
The sessions resulted in hundreds of applications from organizations proposing innovative ways to support Egypt’s transition. A total of 52 grants were awarded over the summer and a striking 40 percent of grant recipients under the transition grant programs were new partners for USAID.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the massive interest in our grants program. Significant, too, was the smaller and nascent NGOs’ interest in these unpredictable times. First-hand interaction with many of these groups during our orientation sessions helped demystify USAID, and it also reflected the high level of confidence they have in USAID as a leading development organization,” said Naglaa Mostafa, a project management specialist in the Democracy and Governance Office of USAID/Egypt.
Tunisian protesters kiss soldiers during a demonstration against the presence of the toppled ruling party in the transitional government, Jan. 20, 2011, in Tunis. Authorities arrested 33 members of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s family as protesters demanded that the former dictator’s ruling party be rooted out.
Nearly half of the new awards focus on civic awareness and participation, voter education and elections, and access to justice, with one grant specifically supporting those in need of legal assistance as a result of the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising. Local Egyptian organizations are focusing their activities at the grassroots level both on the specific election process and on general civic education. Some of these organizations are targeting groups that traditionally are less likely to be politically engaged. The South Egypt Development Association in Qena (SEDAQ), for example, is working with women to increase their political participation as voters and as candidates.
“This grant has allowed SEDAQ to reach women in a region where women have been marginalized from political life,” said project director Adel Ghazaly. “Now that elections have taken on new meaning in Egypt, we want to empower women to vote and present themselves for local popular council seats.”
The organization is reaching their target group by training political educators on communication skills and political laws, running workshops to support women leaders considering running for local councils, and developing political literacy materials for women’s literacy classes. Additionally, they are organizing awareness seminars on women’s rights and participation in political life.
Another grantee, SAED Association for Development and Human Rights, is promoting civic values and active citizenship in the governorates of Giza, Sohag, and Sharqia. The organization is training civil society organizations, preparing hundreds of young people to be leaders, and encouraging over 6,000 men and women to play an active role in managing and developing their local communities.
“This grant allows us to empower citizens in nine villages to be agents of change,” explained Hala Elhabashi, director of SAED.
Grants awarded this summer also respond to the unfolding economic situation, creating jobs and meeting demands as they emerge.
One such grantee, an Egyptian organization named Blue Moon, is helping small farmers better integrate into the international fresh produce supply chain. Using GPS technology to ensure product traceability, the project links small growers through cooperatives to a central database to facilitate communication with potential buyers. By helping farmers comply with international standards, Blue Moon’s project promotes transparency and sustainability, mitigates food safety risks, and empowers small growers and the broader community—including wom-en and disadvantaged groups.
Another grantee, Pathfinder International, will implement a multi-sectoral program in 2012 to provide immediate job opportunities predominantly for young women in rural areas to serve as community health outreach workers, encouraging greater access to health information and quality health services for Egypt’s most vulnerable populations.
Approximately 7,500 women will also be trained in entrepreneurship and will receive financial and technical assistance to start their own businesses. The effort, known as FORSA, Arabic for “opportunity,” will focus on governorates in Egypt’s south, including Assiut and Sohag, which typically suffer from high levels of unemployment, low educational levels, and poor access to health information and services.
“FORSA focuses on answering Egypt’s most immediate needs in the midst of the current situation through efforts that will have lasting impact beyond this time of change,” said Mohamed Abou Nar, Pathfinder’s Egypt country representative.
In March 2011, a coalition that in-cluded the United States, NATO, and Arab countries took military action against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi under a United Nations-approved mandate. As part of the U.S. team, USAID mobilized in coordination with a broad-based international humanitarian effort to protect and assist the Libyan people.
The U.S. Government provided more than $90 million in humanitarian assistance through NGOs, U.N. agencies, and other international organizations to address humanitarian needs in Libya and among the hundreds of thousands who fled the conflict. USAID-funded humanitarian activities included supporting health facilities in Libya with medical supplies, doctors, and nurses; distributing emergency relief supplies to conflict-affected and vulnerable populations; and supporting the World Health Organization emergency health response through medical training and supplies, services, and an early warning system for epidemic-prone diseases. USAID is also supporting U.N. coordination, logistics, and communications in Libya and throughout the region. The Agency’s response quickly evolved to include assistance to strengthen emergent media outlets and civil society organizations and to bolster the basic administrative capacities of interim governing authorities during the period of political transition. USAID’s Libya Transition Initiative, which has been implementing activities on the ground since July 2011, is supporting Libyan-led efforts to promote national unity, while assisting the transition to inclusive democracy.
One example of this work is USAID’s assistance to a new Benghazi-based foundation, Independent Libyan Media, which works to educate emerging print, radio, and new media journalists in the practice of responsible journalism. These media outlets are at the vanguard of the transition to a culture that values freedom of information and expression but that has seen difficulties from a lack of familiarity with the ethics and responsibilities of independent reporting.
Support to emergent civil society and media will remain a critical need to ensure the disparate groups that participated in the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime are fully vested in the political processes that will shape Libya’s future government.
Preparing for a New Chapter
Just 10 months after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster, Tunisia achieved a major milestone in its transition: the country’s first free election for a National Constituent Assembly. In the run-up to the elections, USAID funded projects in support of Tunisian citizens’ engagement in democratic reform efforts. Activities included information sessions on democratic processes, and assisting civic organizations that promote participation in the democratic process, especially amongst women and youth.
Approximately 3.7 million Tunisians voted, with lines stretching out doors and around corners in the hot midday sun. The Carter Center’s monitoring mission deemed the election representative and competitive, and, most notably, the election has instilled confidence in Tunisia’s democratic process, a positive first step in reform.
“October 23rd marked the first open election in the Arab world since the region’s uprisings began,” said Joe Taggart, an elections expert and head of the program office in USAID’s Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, who observed Tunisia’s historic election on the ground. “With this successful election, Tunisians have sent a signal that a peaceful and democratic transition is not only possible, but also pathbreaking.”
Although challenges remain, life for Tunisians has changed in tangible ways. Previously, citizens were only permitted to form associations focused on sports, culture, and the arts. Since the revolution, they are embracing newfound opportunities to engage actively in civic life. To bolster these efforts, USAID is supporting the emergence and strengthening of local organizations.
In July 2011, a USAID-supported workshop trained newly forming associations in Tatouine on management and communication—a step towards greater mobilization of citizens in one of the most historically marginalized governorates in Tunisia. “This was a great occasion for the youth to learn how to operate within an association and to have more ideas about their role in the civil society,” said Radhia Dhiab, a workshop participant.
Egypt’s road has been unpredictable and marked by hurdles as well as achievements. Local organizations are experiencing challenges in implementing activities on the ground, signaling a possible hesitation for support of a fully open and active civil society. At the same time, the enthusiasm and participation in elections seems to be signaling an appetite for and trust in democratic processes.
“USAID’s work in this ever-changing environment demands flexibility and an ear on the ground. This is about Egypt and its future, but the right kinds of USAID investments can help Egyptians realize their dream of a secure, prosperous, and inclusive nation at peace with its neighbors,” said Walter North, USAID/Egypt mission director.
In Libya, USAID is providing assistance on the ground for the first time in decades. To support the country’s emerging civil society, USAID provided seed funding to Hamzat Wasl, a new civil-society resource and learning center in downtown Benghazi. The name Hamzat Wasl comes from a grammatical tool in Arabic that brings sound to silent syllables—or, in this case, capacity to blossoming organizations. The center offers vital services, including Internet stations, work space, a resource library, and professional development opportunities for rising young activists.
USAID has also been conducting human rights trainings and workshops at Hamzat Wasl since October 2011, the first of which trained 25 men and women who aspire to become civil society leaders and advocates for citizens’ rights.
“Just one year ago, all of us would have been arrested for gathering here,” said National Transitional Council Minister of Culture and Civil Society Atia Lawgali at a recent workshop, reflecting on the radical change that Libya’s transition has brought for civil society organizations. Workshops covered the history and evolution of human rights principles, pertinent international laws, protection strategies, and the role of civil society in human rights monitoring and advocacy.
“Libya will now be a place where we can openly promote and protect human rights. We always knew we had rights in a general sense, but we didn’t know there were mechanisms for protecting them,” said Tamer Mohammed El-Jehani, founder of a Benghazi-based youth organization.
Defining a Generation
USAID’s approach to development in the Middle East and North Africa supports President Barack Obama’s work in forging partnerships across the Arab world. In June 2009, Obama gave a speech in Cairo entitled “A New Beginning,” and placed special emphasis on the role of youth in creating this new beginning. “I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country—you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world,” he said.
“The work of this generation will be to carry on the positive legacy of the uprisings by forming and maintaining peaceful, prosperous, stable, and transparent societies that respect the rights of all citizens,” said USAID’s Rudman.
Mohammed Bouazizi may never have imagined that his personal act of defiance would have such far-reaching consequences, but as USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah recently said: “Small human acts have [the power] to cause global and generational change.”
Citizens and donors alike recognize that the political and economic grievances that contributed to the uprisings will not disappear overnight, but USAID remains committed to supporting the people of the Arab world as they work to achieve their democratic goals and aspirations for a better life in the years to come.
Last updated: September 16, 2015