House Hearing on the Middle East Partnership Initiative

Washington, DC
–  The House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia convened on Wednesday to discuss the newly established State Department program, Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Two witnesses testified before the Subcommittee: William 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. They were asked to address such issues as: 1) How MEPI will operate, especially in conjunction with the U.S. terrorism policy towards the countries in the region? 2) What types of projects will be funded and where? 3) How projects will be evaluated? 
In December 2002, at President Bush’s direction, Secretary of State Powell took the lead in organizing MEPI. It is a foreign assistance program aimed at developing the Arab world and focusing on economic, political and educational sectors. These initiatives aim to reform financial sectors, strengthen commercial legal systems, increase transparency, open markets across the region, reform antiquated judicial systems, debt reform, microenterprise lending, and literacy programs; provide parliamentary training; create child-centered schools; and improve linkages between universities in the U.S. and the Middle East. MEPI also seeks to train candidates, particularly women, for political office. Currently, there are programs being conducted in Yemen, Oman, and Morocco.

Behind the launching of MEPI, as Chairwoman Iliana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) mentioned in her opening statement, is the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report. The report attributes the root cause for Arab underdevelopment to a deficit of freedom, a deficit of women’s rights, and a deficit of knowledge, and proposes democracy and free markets as the solution for long term problems in the region. According to Secretary Burns, “many in the region are beginning to realize that their most profound challenges at this moment lie not in war and conflict, but in meeting the political and economic expectations of a new generation.”

But it is not the sole objective of MEPI to establish a framework for working with the peoples of the region to support their efforts in bridging “the freedom gap, the economic gap, and education gap,” and in bringing about real and enduring change from within.  

In addressing the significant role MEPI plays in U.S. national interest, Ambassador Chamberlin cited the National Security Strategy of the Bush Administration which calls for the U.S. to ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and trade, while expanding the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy. She articulated that MEPI is “an important tool to address systematically these issues in the Middle East.” In other words, MEPI is strongly tied with the U.S. policy of War on Terrorism. It is against this backdrop that MEPI’s focus is set on three key areas: political liberalization, educational opportunity, and economic reform.

MEPI’s congeniality with U.S. policy towards the region is reflected in several aspects. For example, Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) raised a question about the novelty of MEPI compared to existing foreign aid programs. The answer is found in that USAID has recently set out on taking part in the political arena through collaboration with the Department of State. Moreover, Rep. Engel (D-NY) hoped that MEPI and the Syria Accountability Act be linked in order to condemn Syria, an “authoritarian country” which “tolerates terrorism and stifle aspirations of Lebanese people”, and to promote the “same kind of democracy with the United States” in the region.  

The most frequently asked question at the hearing (Rep. Steve Chabot, R-OH, Rep. William Janklow, R-SD) was how to deal with such education system and textbooks that teach schoolchildren ‘anti-Jewish sentiment’ (Chabot) and ‘racist’ (Janklow) hatred in Arab countries. In response, Burns said that MEPI encourages ‘de-toxication’ of textbooks especially in the Palestinian school systems. Chamberlin answered that although USAID cannot change textbooks themselves, it is attempting to help change such curricula through the training of teachers.  

Aware of the political dimension of MEPI, Congressman Joseph Pitts (R-PA) asked Burns how much consultation was made with Arab scholars, local and religious leaders so as not to offend the people in the region when MEPI was established. Burns admitted that there is some skepticism among the population regarding the intent of MEPI. The program faces the challenge of removing such skepticism and carrying out its mission effectively.

For fiscal year 2004, the Administration is requesting $145 million to broaden and deepen the Initiative throughout the region. $30 million of the requested funds will be dedicated to: (a) establishing free and fair electoral process; and (b) to promoting the rule of law. $45 million will go to the realm of education reform and assistance. Under the economic pillar of MEPI, the Department of Stated will dedicate $50 million to economic reform. Targeted countries of new projects include Egypt, West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.

For the time being, MEPI is focused on Arab countries. However, there may be a possibility that the Initiative will be expanded to include other countries of the Middle East – Iran being one of which. Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen’s remark implies this; “I have confirmed through speaking with my constituents – whether from Latin America, African countries such as Nigeria, Holocaust survivors, or victims of Iran’s regime – that a human being’s desire for freedom knows no boundaries.”

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