Loud and clear signals from Egypt: Rules of its game with West have changed

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — When the government of erstwhile U.S. ally Egypt shut down seventeen Western pro-democracy groups, trashed their Cairo offices, and slapped travel bans on some of their staff, political relations between Washington and Cairo hit a new and unexpected low. Just a year after a tumultuous political uprising topped the long time rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the once close ties between the USA and Arab Republic of Egypt have soured.

Why the Cairo rulers would bite the proverbial hand that feeds an annual $1.6 billion military/economic aid budget becomes a mystery until you conclude that this move may represent a wider game, playing the neo-nationalist card against the U.S. and showing that the all powerful and shadowy Supreme Council of the Armed Forces defends “Egyptian sovereignty.” Sadly the longstanding assumptions about the close U.S. Egyptian relationship are now as muddy as the River Nile.

U.S. embassy in Cairo. /theatlanticwire.com

As recently as two years ago, Washington’s political ties with Cairo, a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, were close and cordial. They are now frazzled and frayed.

Thus in late December when the Cairo rulers cracked down on Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) among them the International Republican Institute (IRI) the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the human rights monitor Freedom House, most people took little notice or rationalized the move was in fact the Egyptians playing by the rulebook and enforcing their local laws. That would be normal and indeed any foreign human rights and election monitoring groups must play by the rules of the host country.

Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul Naga ordered an investigation into funding of the IRI, NDI, Freedom House as well as a dozen other groups among them the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Naumann Foundation which are connected with Germany’s ruling coalition government. Citing technicalities about foreign funding, the real point of the government crackdown is to stifle oversight and in turn intimidate dissent inside Egypt.

The foreign NGO’s were purely political pawns who could easily be pushed off the paying board and quickly forgotten as the Egyptians gear up for presumably free presidential elections later this year.

Despite initial and giddy optimism over the outcome of the Arab Spring which replaced the basically secular but authoritarian rule of President Mubarak with the rising tide of elected Islamic political parties, the Obama administration now seems to be reaping the whirlwind of misread calculations. Who could have imagined that Washington’s crucial relationship with Egypt would be in jeopardy and that U.S. aid now hangs in the balance?

The political promise of last year’s Arab Spring has turned into political winter. Religious minorities such as the small but influential Coptic Christian community are under assault. Israel has reason for deep concern over the future of the pivotal peace treaty with her giant Arab neighbor which has been the keystone of peace for a generation. And a fractious new military regime in uneasy alliance with the various Islamic fundamentalists now defines the shifting political landscape.

The fact that the Egyptians were foolish enough to block a number of Americans from leaving the country, among them Sam La Hood the son of Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood, would seem a needless and stupid public relations misstep with a close ally, that is unless this was precisely intended to ruffle American feathers.

Minister Faiza Abul Naga, a former Mubarak crony has played the anti-foreign card to ingratiate herself with the new regime. A vocal critic of the West, Abul Naga told Nile International TV that the decision to send special commandos in full riot gear to seal offices, while searching through documents and interrogating employees, came from judges and not Egypt’s ruling military council or government.

Ironically most of these groups have operated openly in Egypt for many years.

This hardly seems the way to treat a close ally and old friend. A team of Egyptian military officials were hurriedly dispatched to Washington in damage control mode to soften the tensions over the raids and to keep the American $1.3 billion annual military aid pipeline open. The Obama administration and State Department are rightly furious after likely having been “played” by the actions of Egypt’s new rulers. Sadly Egypt’s traditional hospitality seems not to extend to human rights monitors.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.