A “handful” of Americans barred from travel sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo today, as Egyptian and U.S. officials prepared to hold talks in Washington.
The negotiations tried to resolve a deepening row over the harassment and likely prosecution of US citizens and Egyptian nationals working for pro-democracy non-government organizations.
With the ruling Supreme Council for Armed Forces under pressure to cede power to a civilian authority, newly-elected liberal MP and former analyst Amr Hamzawy today proposed a draft bill to accelerate progress towards presidential elections.
The authorities in Cairo have banned several US employees of pro-democracy NGOs from travelling outside the country prior to widely expected prosecutions.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that “a handful” of U.S. citizens barred from leaving had taken shelter at the mission:
In what would be a dramatic sign of a fraying alliance — one that has been the lynchpin of US diplomacy in the Middle East — The Washington Post and The New York Times quoted officials saying the Americans feared arrest.
The Americans were invited to stay, Nuland said, because of unspecified “concerns,” although she insisted that “we do not feel that they are in physical danger at the moment.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly called SCAF chief Field Marshall Tantawi over the weekend to express concern over restrictions on NGOs, the Pentagon said, while the State Department called for the Egyptian authorities to lift the ban immediately.
“But there was no sign the Egyptians were moving to do so, even though Cairo runs the risk of losing billions of dollars of US aid if it fails to allow the NGOs to work normally,” reports suggest.
The NGO dispute deteriorated further as a high-ranking Egyptian military delegation arrived in the U.S.
“This trip was planned long before this whole flare-up with the NGOs,” a State Department official told AFP. “Obviously, I’m sure that [the NGO issue] will come up in meetings.”
On Monday, the delegation visited Tampa, Fla., for meetings with the U.S. military’s Central Command. The Egyptian officers will be in Washington on Wednesday to meet with military and diplomatic representatives, and are supposed to meet with U.S. lawmakers. In addition to meetings at the Pentagon, the Egyptian delegation is scheduled to meet with State Department officials and members of Congress.
Ms. Nuland said the Egyptians would hear U.S. concerns clearly when they reach Washington. “You can be assured that in every meeting they have with the administration, and I would venture to guess in every meeting that they’re going to have with Congress, that this situation will come up,” she said.
U.S. officials have been trying to remain hopeful about changes in Egypt since the government of former President Hosni Mubarak fell last year. “There are challenges that remain, but it’s important to remember that Egypt has come a long way,” said a White House spokesman.
Some observers believe the attack on civil society is being orchestrated by Fayza Aboul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, and a prominent holdover from the Mubarak regime.
“She is a one-woman wrecking crew when it comes to U.S.-Egypt relations, and the democracy NGOs have long been a particular obsession of hers,” writes Elliott Abrams, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst:
Arab Springs may come and go, Tahrir Square may become a global symbol for protests, President Mubarak may be in a cage in a Cairo courtroom, but Minister Aboul Naga does not permit such fleeting events to affect her distaste for democracy promotion. This kind of thinking has now led to a real crisis in bilateral relations. Perhaps the SCAF feels too weak these days to discipline her; perhaps her form of nationalism is now popular in Cairo. ….. Donors considering economic aid to Egypt, including the U.S. Congress, should realize that this assistance will pass through her hands.
The Obama administration is coming under pressure to withhold up to $250 million in economic assistance and up to $500 million in debt forgiveness, after the US Congress passed a bill linking the aid to certain democratic benchmarks. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy, said Congress is prepared to apply pressure.
“If Egypt gets away with banning our democracy NGOs and threatening to jail their staff, if officials who lead such actions are later given warm official receptions in Washington, those NGOs may as well close up show: every undemocratic regime will start treating them the same way,” Abrams writes. “We need to stand up for them strongly–and now.”
The Egyptian authorities are taking deliberate advantage of U.S. ambivalence towards the region’s democratic upsurge, reflected in the “conventional wisdom that the fall of Arab dictators, particularly Egypt’s, weakens American leverage in the Middle East”, writes his CFR colleague Ed Husain.
“Egypt’s military government detects this American weakness, which is why it recently had the audacity to raid the offices of several American nongovernmental organizations,” including the government funded National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House, he contends.
In response, the Germans immediately summoned the Egyptian ambassador. Egyptian democracy activists predicted that the U.S. would do the same, or at least issue a powerful condemnation from the White House. Neither happened.
Sensing the indignation and expectations among Egyptian revolutionaries on Twitter, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted, “We call on Egyptian government to end harassment of NGO staff as well as return all property.” I responded by challenging the embassy: “Then what?”
Officials answered by asking me what should be done. This lack of confidence, fear of offending, and inability to take a stance stems from the default belief in American weakness and decline. I tweeted back to the officials that the U.S. government should ask its military allies to return to their barracks and cease killing protesters—and that it should tie these demands to U.S. aid. Yes, that small matter of $1.3 billion annually, $39 billion to date.