The U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is a U.S. State Department program that supports organizations and individuals in their efforts to promote political, economic, and social reform in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
MEPI provides direct support to both international and MENA-based NGOs, educational institutions, local governments and private businesses to implement projects designed to directly engage and invest in the people of the MENA region. Through these partnerships, MEPI helps build the capacity of those that serve as the region’s most successful agents of change - local civil society and business leaders, activists, scholars, students, and lawmakers.
MEPI-supported projects cover a wide range of topics from voter education programs in Egypt, judicial reform seminars in the Persian Gulf, women’s literacy campaigns in Yemen, and a region-wide partnership program between U.S. and Middle Eastern universities. Two of MEPI’s most prominent programs are its annual Student Leaders program that brings students from all over the region to participate in a summer-long seminar, and its Middle East Entrepreneur Training program, which assists aspiring young business and civil society leaders.
MEPI’s budget has been steadily increasing. After initially receiving $29 million, its budget in FY2005 was $75 million. As of 2009, MEPI has granted roughly $530 million to over 600 projects in 17 different countries, including the Palestinian Territories. In support of this Bush Administration's signature program, President Obama continued his support for MEPI and received a requested increase of $86 million from Congress targeted towards the Governing Justly and Democratically (GJD) objective. This program develops civil society in key locations in volatile regions covered by the State Department's Bureau of Near East Affairs(NEA).
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, serving under President George W. Bush, announced the creation of MEPI in a December 2002 speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, declaring that the goal of MEPI was to create “a long-term prospect” for reform, “not something that is going to be done in one year or five years.”. MEPI was designed to target areas not served by USAID, the United States’ main foreign aid and development program. Initially dependent on USAID in support of its mission, MEPI has come into its own and targets short-term programs addressing political change in order for USAID longer-term development programs to be successful.
In 2002, Elizabeth Cheney, known as Liz, and daughter of Vice-President Dick Cheney, was appointed U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and tasked with supervising MEPI. Cheney explained that under MEPI, the US administration funded programs as diverse as training Arab journalists to revising current teaching methods from rote learning to more child-oriented teaching methods. Additionally, MEPI supported countries seeking to sign Free Trade Agreements with the United States to meet President Bush’s goal to establish a joint Middle East Free Trade zone by 2013.
In March 2003, William Joseph Burns, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State, and Wendy Chamberlin, Assistant Administrator for Asia and the Near East, U.S. Agency for International Development, testified before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia on the operational aspects of MEPI and how they reflected U.S policy of the War on Terrorism. Rep. Steve Chabot, R- OH and Rep. William Janklow, R-SD, questioned how reforms would be enacted to deal with textbooks that taught Arab children “anti-Jewish sentiment” and “racist” hatred. Burns responded that “detoxification” would be encouraged by MEPI, particularly in the Palestinian school system. Chamberlin stated that USAID would attempt to address this through teacher training programs. A February 2, 2010, article in the Jerusalem Post reported that a UK watchdog group, The Taxpayer's Alliance, has tracked European taxpayer-funded aid to the Palestinians. In recently released reports, the Alliance found that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel narratives continue to persist in Palestinian textbooks in violation of the 1994 Oslo Accords.
In a November 2003 speech given at the National Endowment for Democracy, also known as the NED, President Bush stressed the need to spread democracy to the Arab and Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East to address the deficits of freedom. Carl Gershman, president of the NED, in his remarks delivered at the December 12, 2003 Conference on Mideast Regional Security V, reinforced President Bush’s words with his own, “By any category that is meaningful in the world today, there is only one set of countries that is completely undemocratic: the Arab world.” Mr. Gershman stated further that “democracy will not come about if people dwell on the past or are obsessed with blame-placing, but only if they seek practical solutions to real problems. If this is true, it follows that a change in political culture – replacing attitudes of victimization with a readiness to engage in self-criticism and to take responsibility for one’s own fate – can only come from within the Arab world.” MEPI’s original mandate was to address four deficits in the Arab world identified by the 2002 Arab Human Development Report—deficits in political freedom, economic freedom, knowledge, and women's rights. In that same U.N. report, Arab scholars wrote that a choice had to be made between ‘inertia…[and] an Arab renaissance that will build a prosperous future for all Arabs.”
Today, MEPI’s programs increase the capacity of civil society organizations in the region to advance political participation, foster economic reform, support quality education, and empower women and youth in the Middle East and North Africa, areas identified as critical by President Barack Obama in his June 4, 2009 speech at Cairo University. MEPI advances the cause of democracy and women’s rights in the Middle East by promoting female literacy and health programs, as well as business and political training. MEPI can serve as a model for women’s advocacy programs globally. This U.S. foreign policy, in turn, encourages economic growth, thereby contributing towards the development of democratic institutions and countering extremism. These reforms were accelerated by the Obama administration after the Arab Spring/ Arab awakening in light of the 2011 revolutions.
MEPI is located within the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the U.S. State Department. In addition to its Washington, D.C. headquarters, MEPI has regional offices in the MENA region.
Soft power, a phrase coined by political theorist and author, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., is used as a complement to America's military strength, or hard power, in a post 9-11 world. Nye believes that by incorporating soft power in U.S. national strategy, America is able to utilize "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.".
In a June 2007 article for The Stanley Foundation, Francis Fukuyama and Michael McFaul endorsed American soft power as a means to implement democracy in foreign policy, “The war in Iraq has fostered the false impression that military force is the only instrument of regime change, when in fact it is the rarest used and least effective way to promote democratic change abroad. A wiser, more effective, and more sustainable strategy must emphasize nonmilitary tools aimed at changing the balance of power between democratic forces and autocratic rulers and, only after there has been progress toward democracy, building liberal institutions.”
MEPI’s gradual, “bottom-up” public diplomacy approach is a process to create conditions where the pressure for change will come from Arabs themselves. A rapid transition to democracy risks destabilizing autocratic regimes and unintentionally empowering anti-U.S. Islamists who would exploit their position to oppose the existing regime. Critics of this rationalization have suggested that autocrats in some cases, like Egypt, inflate those fears as a way to maintain their power.
MEPI's small grant programs are part of routine embassy efforts by U.S. political officers to connect with activists in the region to further effect democratic reform and support human rights. In 2008, MEPI issued a grant to the Maccabim program, a community service project serving inner-city, at-risk youth in the impoverished Israeli Arab neighborhood of Lod, Israel. The program, endorsed by the Lod Municipality, provides soccer training, warm meals, tutoring, and counseling for neighborhood children. Asaf Toledano, Maccabim Program Director, noted that since the area had been plagued by violence and drug dealers, the Tel Aviv police department approached Maccabim to establish the community service project in 2005. Today the program includes 225 children, 3 schools and a staff of 30, including soccer coaches and coordinator. The U.S. Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, Luis G. Moreno, praised the program at a 2009 festive soccer match between the police department and neighborhood teams.
One of MEPI’s pillars is women’s empowerment. In a March 13, 2010, U.N. speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an international women’s conference of more than 2,000 women activists, “The subjugation of women is a direct threat to the security of the United States. The status of the world’s women is not only a matter of justice. It is also a political, economic, and social imperative.” Secretary Clinton stated that this principle was at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
On September 25, 2009, the State Department announced a pilot program where MEPI will be soliciting proposals from five organizations that will be awarded between $500,000 and $2.5 million for the expansion of social network technologies for new media capabilities in the Middle East. As part of Secretary of State Clinton's efforts to connect young people in closed socieities for greater involvement in civic participation and open political discussions online, she stated, "We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."
In the War of ideas, there are risks to online activism in authoritarian regimes because countries that receive U.S. aid, like Egypt, have detained and jailed the bloggers and online activists like Ahmed Maher, who try to hold their government accountable. Expectations about how effective social networking is in encouraging political change is part of the global conversation the State Department is promoting. Although global connectivity can be dangerous for activists in closed societies, the most significant change is in the realm of public sphere bloggers who write about social issues that change their expectations about the societies where they live. MEPI's investment in promoting greater connectivity in the Middle East can shift the status quo through this more sophisticated, long-lasting approach supporting activists in authoritarian regimes.
Critics have charged that MEPI hinders reform by working too closely within the limitations set by the Arab governments in the regions it serves. MEPI has addressed these concerns through its small grants programs shifting away from Arab government agencies to work directly with civil society activists.
MEPI critics in the Arab world saw the initiative as the U.S. means to impose reforms on the Middle East following 9-11 and complained that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Arab territories and the U.S. occupation in Iraq needed to be resolved before reforms could be introduced. Liz Cheney refuted those critics by stating that the U.S. administration believed without reform, the region would continue to generate “ideologies of hate and violence.” Cheney believed that reforms as well as resolutions to regional issues could occur concurrently. Economic and political reforms would influence the future of the Middle East. Cheney offered that court systems needed to be reformed in order to instill investor confidence in the region.
Although there is increasing debate over the need for Arab countries to reform politically and economically, most of these Arab countries are suspicious when such reform is called for by the U.S. government. Thomas Carothers, an authority on democracy promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested in February 2005, that MEPI should be reestablished as the Middle East Foundation (MEF), a private foundation that would be eligible for funding in a line-item grant in the foreign affairs account of the federal budget. If freed from the constraints of an aid program affiliated with the State Department, Carothers argued, such a foundation would enjoy the autonomy necessary to develop political reform projects that would be viewed as separate from the U.S. government. Moreover, it would be more likely that MEPI would increase the possibility of attracting funding from sources outside the U.S. government.