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Egypt Before the Arab Spring: Shifting Tides of Democracy and Westernization

The Arab Spring began in late 2010 as a series of anti-government protests throughout several Middle Eastern countries that permanently altered the political and social climate of the region. The time leading up to, during, and after this event has been full of turmoil and important political change.

 The USIA Experience: Lessons for the Proposed USAID/State Department Merger, June 20, 2017, CSIS Headquarters.
The USIA Experience: Lessons for the Proposed USAID/State Department Merger, June 20, 2017, CSIS Headquarters.

Hilda “Bambi” Arellano served as the USAID Mission Director in Egypt during the years leading up to the Arab Spring, from 2007 to 2010. She saw the changes unfolding as the Egyptian people began to take hold of democratic values and put pressure on their oppressive government, especially in 2009 after President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Cairo, which discussed the relationship between Middle Eastern and Western countries, and highlighted the importance of democratic values. Obama’s speech influenced many Egyptians—who had by then become displeased with their oppressive government—to join the fight for democracy that was building across other parts of the Middle East, and that culminated in the Arab Spring. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Hilda Arellano describes how she sensed the looming changes throughout Egypt that would ultimately mark an important period in history.

As the Mission Director in Egypt from 2007 to 2010, Arellano followed the trajectory of the Egyptian economy, which progressively weakened as tourism revenue declined. Further complicating the picture, so much of the Egyptian economy, including a substantial portion of land, was state owned. Arrellano saw this as a source of grievance for many Egyptians because it benefited a few privileged people and prevented the poor, middle class, and otherwise disadvantaged people from getting resources and economic means to advance. Following President Obama’s speech and the influence of Western democracy, Arellano also noticed a huge increase in support for social programs and reforms aimed at improving healthcare and education within Egypt. Her work with USAID supported Egyptians toward these goals. Arellano also interacted with the then-President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Under Mubarak, Arellano saw that significant changes were not going to occur, even while the political climate was beginning to shift. It wasn’t until after Mubarak’s presidency ended—and after Arrellano’s tour in Egypt was over—that the real change began to occur during the Arab Spring. However, the events leading up to the Arab Spring were extremely influential and formative, and made up an important part of Arellano’s career.

Bambi Arellano’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on June 3, 2016.

Read Bambi Arellano’s full oral history HERE.

For more moments on the Arab Spring, read HERE and HERE.

Drafted by Genevieve Husak

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Excerpts:
“The Arab Spring was January, 2011. But it was clear that something was in the works even when I was leaving [in 2010].”

           
Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi wave flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo, July 3, 2013, Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Rheuters/Landov, npr.org
Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi wave flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo, July 3, 2013, Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Rheuters/Landov, npr.org

Economic Troubles in Egypt: Well, when I got there the program I think now this is a major issue because of the downturn in tourism and just the downturn in the economy overall. You know some of the impact of what has happened following the Arab Spring. There was a major economic focus within the portfolio. A lot of it was policy-based just because some much of the economy is either state-controlled or actually controlled by the military. So kind of state-owned, military things. I don’t know what percentage of the land in the country is owned by the military. So there was a lot of trying to straighten that out. A lot of working with upcoming modernizing entrepreneurs and business people.

Tensions Leading Up to the Arab Spring: The Arab Spring was January, 2011. But it was clear that something was in the works even when I was leaving [in 2010]. Because a lot of our work was in upper Egypt and in upper Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood was extremely strong and so we would go to inaugurations and you could just feel it. People would say, the director of the school, or the health poster, I mean it was in Alexandria as well. There were areas, some of the marginal urban areas of Cairo. Mubarak had been in power for a long time, a long time and there were just a lot of tensions over the push for democracy that started with a bipartisan effort and so we had this civil society earmark which was the bane of existence of the embassy and the bane of existence of several of our key Egyptian interlocutors and just kind of making that work and sending the signal that if the U.S. was going to continue to fund the country at the level it had funded be it on the military or the civilian side, there needed to be an understanding that it wasn’t just about them signing on to protect the Gaza border, it was much broader than that.

Effects of the Arab Spring: It was starting to happen and then, of course, it all blew up during the Arab Spring. I don’t want to say blew up, it’s the wrong term, but it just really got much more complicated during the Arab Spring. So I mean you just knew that something was brewing and the president’s Cairo speech which was so very articulate on the role of civil society and the need to open up to youth and listen to them, and realize that they were going to be part of, or needed to be part of a very different world and feel empowered. I mean, it sent some very, very strong messages that the Egyptians I don’t think the government was comfortable with. The Egyptian people, yeah, it really echoed with the Egyptian people . . . .

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Government, Cornell University 1963–1967
MA in Latin American Studies, UT Austin 1967–1968
MA in Teaching, Antioch Putney Graduate School of Education 1968-1969
Joined the Foreign Service 1987
Quito, Ecuador—Deputy Office Chief, General Development Office 1988-1990
Baghdad, Iraq—USAID Mission Director 2006–2007
Cairo, Egypt—USAID Mission Director 2007–2010
Kabul, Afghanistan—Coordinator for Economic Affairs and Development Assistance 2012–2013