EGYPT. The Egyptian government’s decision to press criminal charges against American pro-democracy workers is creating the deepest rift between the two nations in almost four decades and underscoring the shrinking U.S. influence in a rapidly changing Middle East.
“This would probably be the most serious set of tensions between the U.S. and Egypt since the 1970s,” following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, said former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group.
The conflict is putting in jeopardy US$1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt, while the U.S. may lose influence with the most populous Arab nation, which views the U.S. assistance as linked to the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters February 7 that he will raise the aid issue when a Senate delegation visits Egypt as early as next week.
At a Cairo press conference yesterday, Prime Minister, Kamal El-Ganzouri, said that threats to cut aid won’t change Egypt’s position.
Egyptian legal authorities yesterday handed down more than 100 pages of criminal charges against 43 workers at non- governmental organizations, including those they said were 19 Americans.
Judge Ashraf el-Ashmawy, who is overseeing the cases, said that authorities are seeking the arrest of 14 “fugitives” who failed to show up for questioning. If convicted, the defendants could receive jail sentences of up to five years and fines, the judge said in a telephone interview yesterday.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said 16 Americans are being charged, about half of whom are no longer in Egypt. There has been no explanation for the discrepancy between the American and Egyptian numbers. An unspecified number of the Americans still in Egypt, barred from leaving, have taken refuge at the U.S. embassy compound as “guests” of Ambassador Anne Patterson, Nuland told reporters in Washington yesterday.
The Americans being charged include staff from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, democracy-advocacy groups allied with the Republican and Democratic parties. Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, heads IRI’s Cairo office.
Attempts to resolve the dispute are “not getting traction,” Nuland said. “There is something more going on here than purely a judicial process,” she said.
The Egyptians have moved ahead with the crackdown on domestic and foreign non-governmental organizations despite pressure from top U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, plans to press the issue later this week during a previously scheduled visit to Egypt, a U.S. military official said.
“American influence counts much less in the region than ever and if the Egyptians go ahead and put these people on trial, including the son of a Cabinet official, it signals that,” Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator in President Bill Clinton’s administration, said in an interview.
The U.S. is “neither feared, nor respected, nor admired as much as we used to be” in a critical part of the world, he said.
In order for Congress to release aid to Egypt this year, Secretary of State Clinton has to confirm that Egypt’s interim military rulers are making a successful transition to democracy. That aid has been linked to Egypt’s agreement, in the Camp David Accords, to establish peace with Israel and to a July 2007 pledge by President George W. Bush’s administration provide US$1.3 billion in military aid annually for ten years.
The prosecution of the pro-democracy workers is “the antithesis of movement toward democracy,” and “endangers assistance,” California Representative Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview yesterday.
Republican Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration should work with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to determine whether cutting off aid to Egypt would be detrimental to Israel-Egypt peace.
“I think that our foreign aid ought to be determined by what’s in the best interest of the United States and our ally Israel,” Burton said in an interview yesterday.
The problem, said Miller of the Wilson Center, is that Egypt’s leaders don’t seem that worried about the aid. “They’re prepared to do without, they’re prepared to call our bluff,” he said. “They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship means more to us than to them.”
Jeffrey Martini, a project associate at the Rand Corporation, a policy group in Virginia, agrees that Egyptians believe they have leverage.
An Egyptian document titled “Request for Military Assistance” in fiscal year 2010 lists ways the U.S. gains from the relationship. Those benefits include thousands of over- flights for missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; support during operations in the region, including the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and expedited U.S. Navy transit through the Suez Canal.
“The Egyptians don’t see that assistance as a gift,” Martini, who recently returned from Egypt, said in an interview. “They say the U.S. gains a lot and in recent years, the U.S. has gained a lot.”
That said, Martini added that he thinks the Egyptians “have miscalculated. I think they didn’t expect as much pushback from Congress.”
Marina Ottaway, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington policy group, said the charges clearly have the backing of the military body that is ruling the country until the newly election government takes over.
“Whether they were part of the original decision, there is no doubt the SCAF backed the decision in the end,” Ottaway said in an interview, using the acronym for the military’s interim ruling body.
She noted that Egypt is still largely in the hands of former president Hosni Mubarak’s old regime, which resisted U.S. funding of democracy groups for years.
The prosecutions may be a populist ploy to distract the public from Egypt’s teetering economy. The country is seeking a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and another US$1 billion from the World Bank.
“This is a provoked crisis,” David Schenker, director of the Arab Politics program at the Washington Institute, a policy group that focuses on the Middle East, said in an interview. “In post-Mubarak Egypt, populist politics and anti-Americanism play well,” he said.