Egypt’s troubled path to from dictatorship to democracy is proving a fertile ground for soft power. The military-run government was widely criticised for its crackdown on NGOs. It used a Mubarak era law designed to control foreign funding of NGOs. Reports indicated that the government wanted to create a wave of anti-American feeling to help it ride out the demonstrations in favour of the Revolution (Known in the west as the Arab Spring).
The irony of the military.. heavily financed by the USA.. seeking to gain political capital out of foreign financing of NGO escaped the government. However the military took note of the USA’s concerns and agreed to rescind the crackdown.
A few days later the Egyptian government did release details of foreign funding of NGOs. And it makes fascinating reading. The April 6 movement, a prime player in the Revolution, received no foreign funding. Now that must have dented many assumptions.
On the other hand a single Salafi based organisation received a staggering $50m. The money came from Qatar and Kuwait rather than Saudi Arabia, the usual source of Salafi financing. The Ansar El-Sonna association denied the funding was for political purposes but was for mosques and orphanages. (Update: the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Egypt explains that the funds went to “charitable societies that care for orphans and the poor”)
The Salafi political party, Al-Noor, of course did exceptionally well in the recent Parliamentary elections with over 20% of the votes so far. It is a serious rival to the more established Muslim Brotherhood, let alone the centre, secular and liberal parties who collectively did not do well.
USAID was discovered to be providing around $11m to various democracy movements. The funding from other western organisations was not recorded.
Soft power is the art of influencing others to do what you would want them to do. The Egypt case demonstrates that direct funding of democracy movements, important though it is, can be dwarfed by a more subtle level of support. The Gulf based funding coupled with the increasing dominance of the Saudi and Wahhabi based satellite TV channels ensures the ideas and values of the Salafis are being reflected in the votes of Egyptians.