The Obama administration’s “top officials” are working “night and day” to ensure the release of democracy activists being held in Egypt, a U.S. cabinet secretary said today.
But Egyptian officials today rejected any possibility of a diplomatic solution to the impasse, insisting that “there is only one way” the activists will leave the country – via the court room.
The Muslim Brotherhood this week threatened that the withdrawal of U.S. assistance in response to the crackdown would jeopardize the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. But there is “a middle way” that allows Washington to secure the activists’ release while protecting U.S. strategic interests, analysts suggest.
“This is the first time that NGOs have ever really come under this kind of attack by a government, in any country,” said Transport Secretary Ray LaHood.
“These NGOs have been working for years in democracy-building efforts, and they thought they were well within their right to do it, he said. “So it’s a little bit puzzling to many people what’s happening there.”
But he added: “Frankly, I don’t know how it will be resolved.”
His son, Sam LaHood, who runs the Cairo office of the International Republican Institute, is one of 43 foreign nationals accused of operating illegally and banned from leaving the country.
Officials from U.S.-based pro-democracy groups blame Faiza Aboul Naga, the Minister for International Cooperation, for the crackdown, a Congressional committee heard yesterday. She has been able to take advantage of the military’s political immaturity and internal divisions, observers suggest.
“I am hearing assertions that the military council does not want this fierce [anti-American] campaign,” said Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat and an analyst. “This is something that is organized but within a more general situation of chaos … The army and the council care about the military aid, but not so the security services.”
Nevertheless, having whipped up xenophobic public sentiment and publicly insisted that the prosecutions are a legal matter, neither the military nor the civilian authorities can afford to back down.
“There is only one way for these Americans to lawfully exit the country and that is for a court of law to find them not guilty of the charges against them,” an Egyptian official told Al Ahram. “The other way is for the Americans to attempt and get them out unlawfully and this would trigger a really huge crisis for both countries”.
“This is at an impasse,” said another Egyptian official. He noted that Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey asked for their release during his trip to Cairo last week “and demanded they return with him on his plane but his request was declined by [his senior Egyptian interlocutors] who made it clear that they cannot take such a move in violation of Egyptian judiciary authority, and that such a move would ignite an unprecedented animosity in Egypt against the US.”
“In this case, according to the law, they could only be fined and allowed to leave the country but this is a process that could take up to a few weeks,” said a legal source:
The legal exit, the same sources argue, is “a possibility that could be worked out” if the concerned US citizens, whose NGOs have been working in Cairo without a legal permit since 2005, apply to register and operate according to the relevant laws.
“This?is?just a diversion to distract people from a [difficult and messy] political transition,” said a former Egyptian diplomat. “I don’t think it was intended to develop as a crisis, but if you play with fire you can get burnt. It is a sign that government is in disarray.”
Some analysts, the Financial Timesnotes, argue that there is more to the argument than distraction, suggesting that forces in the unreformed security services that underpinned the Mubarak regime could be laying the ground for an attempt to torpedo the country’s political transition.
The Egyptian authorities have accused the non-governmental organizations of interfering in the country’s domestic political affairs, even suggesting that they were engaged in espionage and fomenting chaos. Such charges reflect, at best, a misunderstanding about democracy assistance, if not a deeply entrenched conspiratorial approach to politics, analysts suggest.
“There needs to be a recognition that a robust and free civil society is just as important to the democratization process as are free elections,” said Michelle Dunne, an Egypt specialist at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “These kinds of NGO’s are trying to do the work in Egypt that they do all over the world. There is nothing unusual or suspicious about the work that either the American of Egyptian NGO’s are doing.”
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has endorsed the crackdown on the NGOs, forming a common front with other illiberal forces amongst the military and former regime elements.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to maintain strong links with the military rulers despite occasional tiffs, is at pains to further enhance its popularity among ordinary Egyptians who view this issue as a matter of dignity,” said Sharif Mansour, a political expert.
“The Brotherhood is grateful to the [ruling] military council for all these once-undreamed-of gains,” said Mansour. “The dispute between the military and the US provides a chance for the group to show gratitude to the army generals and ease pressure on them in the streets by portraying them as defending the nation’s dignity.”
But such an opportunistic alliance will not be enough to prevent a looming power struggle between the Islamists and military, other suggest.
“They [the military and security] believe the whole revolution was a conspiracy involving the Brotherhood. They are unlikely to hand over the state to the Brotherhood conspirators,” said Fishere.
Some administration officials fear that ending U.S. assistance programs a year after Mubarak’s ouster would send the wrong signals about Washington’s support for Arab democracy.
“I am always reluctant to come to the stark conclusion about cutting aid,” Dempsey told a congressional panel Thursday. “Cutting off aid and therefore cutting ourselves off from them means that the next generation won’t have that benefit, and I don’t know where that takes us, to tell you the truth.”
But there is “a middle way” that allows Washington to use a key “pressure point” within the aid package “that preserves influence in Cairo while still showing the will to act when red lines are crossed,” according to Gabriel Kohan, a former Israel Government Fellow and Mark Doing, a former Dean’s Fellow at Herzliya’s Program for the Diplomatic Corps.
“Leverage is gained in order to be used,” they write. By cutting the U.S.-Egyptian co-production of M1 Abrams tanks – ”the program of paramount importance and prestige” to the SCAF – Washington would send key messages not only to Cairo but the wider region:
The overarching theme of these messages – that the United States will respond when other countries cross red lines – is of crucial importance not only to the United States’ interests in Egypt, but to its broader policy objectives across the Middle East, particularly as Iran swiftly approaches nuclear capability. No matter how events develop in Egypt, Iranian leadership will be watching with a keen eye to see if the United States is willing to carry out threats against foreign actions anathema to its interests. It is incumbent that the Administration send a message for all to see that when Egypt, or any country, crosses a red line, the United States is prepared to respond with precision and severity.