The optimism among U.S.-based consultants about the door opening to an entirely new market is tempered by a wish not to see history repeat itself. The fall of communism at the end of the 20th century was expected to reveal a constellation of Western-style democracies. Russia, with its vast resources and large population, was once considered the next frontier for campaign consulting.
After the Soviet Union fell, there were U.S. consultants involved in the first round of elections in Russia.
“Then [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin came in, and that whole sort of transition to his authoritative structure took over and opportunities to actually participate were stymied for American consultants,” Devine recalls.
It underscores concerns that any political change in North Africa could be undone as quickly as it was sparked. The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were spontaneous, seeming to launch from a single act of protest that resonated with millions of disenfranchised Arabs. Many observers trace the genesis of the upheaval to a single Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi.
The 26-year-old man was his family’s breadwinner. Local authorities hobbled his income, though, routinely disrupting his produce business by confiscating his merchandise and scales. When a female officer tried to take equipment from his cart this past December, Bouazizi resisted. Family and friends told Al-Jazeera English that he was slapped and thrown to the ground. When he attempted to lodge a grievance with local officials, no one would see him. He left, returned with paint thinner, and set himself on fire in front of a government building. He died almost two weeks later from his injuries.
With the help of social media outlets and digital communication, the significance of Bouazizi’s death was amplified. It touched off a backlash in Tunisia against Ali’s government, uniting generations and classes against his 23-year rule. Four weeks after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, Ali fled.
Emboldened by reports from Tunisia, Egyptian activists soon began what turned into an 18-day protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. By mid-February, Mubarak had resigned and the Egyptian military pledged to follow the people’s will and hold free elections. A timetable for a parliamentary vote and a possible presidential race is expected early this fall.
These upcoming elections are likely to go a long way toward determining whether consulting opportunities in the region will grow, according to David Denehy, a campaign consultant who has worked extensively in the Middle East. “For this democratic spring, or whatever you want to call it, to continue, we need to make sure that the elections are competitive, that they’re representative of the people’s will and that good people get elected who will carry that tradition forward.
“I don’t know who the right people are,” he admits. “But it behooves us to work for people who believe in fair and competitive elections.”
Before this spring’s protests, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya lacked unified oppositions that could organize alternatives to the status quo and gain international legitimacy. The strongest opposition group in Egypt, for instance, was the Muslim Brotherhood. A prime concern now is that extremists could use ballot boxes to seize power in North Africa. And some worry that U.S. dollars could inadvertently tip the scales against pro-Western politicians.
The White House has allocated $65 million for fostering democracy and governance in Egypt since this spring’s unrest, according to the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), a nonpartisan research group. An additional $100 million has been set aside for developing Egypt’s economy, though the money could also go toward the training of Egypt’s political parties.
Another $32 million will go toward democracy and governance in Tunisia, and that’s only the beginning, says POMED Executive Director Stephen McInerney.
“There will be more [money] put to both Egypt and Tunisia. There’s a lot of concern,” says McInerney. “Things are very uncertain.”
The money will flow primarily through USAID, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy Labor and Human Rights, IRI and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The two groups kept offices in Egypt before the revolution. (The groups were banned from Tunisia under Ben Ali’s reign.) Both organizations are now beefing up their regional presence and want to expand their trainings.
The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to enter Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections with its new Freedom and Justice Party. U.S. State Department officials worry that freer elections in Egypt might give the Muslim Brotherhood the chance to control the country’s army—one of the region’s most powerful—and its vital shipping lanes, which has them scrambling for ways to help create a competitive political environment.
“By most estimation, the Muslim Brotherhood’s new party is among the better organized and prepared for electoral competition,” says a Washington-based consultant who works with USAID and the State Department. “The thrust of our efforts are being placed on those other groups that are new.”
Washington has made it clear that it doesn’t want to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from the Democratic process, but according to two consultants with previous experience in Mid-East democracy building, a policy of inclusiveness could result in U.S funds being used to train Muslim Brotherhood activists. IRI and NDI routinely hold open training sessions, which members of the Freedom and Justice Party or its political allies could, at least in theory, attend.
A State Department official dismissed that notion, claiming it would be anathema to the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters to be seen as accepting U.S. help.
“The Muslim Brotherhood issue is something that’s still being worked out at a policy level,” adds the consultant.
It’s just one of several political minefields American consultants will have to navigate as they pursue business in burgeoning Arab democracies. Consultants who worked in Iraq’s recent elections spoke of colleagues who took on clients whose interests diverged from those of the U.S. Many think something similar could happen in North Africa, not necessarily because of the moral rectitude of the consultants involved, but because many of the political players and their affiliations remain unknown.
“Right now, it’s just such a melee that you don’t really know who’s who and that’s going to take some time to sort out,” says Denehy. “I think that is what’s making people wary. Most folks aren’t quote, unquote ‘political whores,’ or whatever you want to call them. They want to work for people whose views and interests they see as positive.”
In Egypt, he says, “I think there’s still uncertainty about that.”
Moreover, there are indications that the desire for democracy in Egypt may not run very deep. In its April poll for IRI, Williams’ firm asked respondents to identify the single “biggest problem” facing the country. More than a third polled said the economy was the top issue. Only two percent cited the need for “free elections.”
“Really the question is—is what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen going to go forward to places like Syria and Saudi Arabia and Iran?” says Marsh. “If it does, wow, there’s going to be tremendous opportunities. But if it doesn’t work in Egypt, it’s not going to work very well in a lot of other places.”
Correction: This story originally identified IRI as the international arm of the Republican Party. IRI is an independent 501(c)(3).
Sean J. Miller is a political writer based in Los Angeles.