A year ago, Egypt was America’s staunchest ally in the Arab world and the
bulwark of its policy against the axis of evil led by Tehran. The strong
strategic bond between the two countries was upheld by the millions of dollars
in American aid allocated to Egypt following the peace treaty with Israel: In
2010, $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million for civilian purposes.
Egyptian army officers studied and trained in the United States and every other
year, the two armies held joint military exercises code-named “Bright
Over the years, a number of other countries – from the Middle East
and from Europe – were invited to take part in these exercises, which reinforced
Egypt’s dominant role in the region.
But now, both the peace with Israel
and the strategic alliance with America are under attack. It started immediately
after the revolution. Nabil Elaraby, the new foreign minister (soon to be
elected head of the Arab League) said that “revolutionary Egypt had no enemies,”
adding that he would open a dialogue with Iran and check if there was a need to
introduce changes to the peace treaty with Israel.
Then, with the full
support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), talks began with
Hamas – which is on the list of banned terrorist organizations of both the
United States and the European Union. Former Arab League chief and current
presidential candidate Amr Moussa and would-be candidate Mohamed ElBaradei both
declared that the peace treaty would have to be reviewed to see if it complied
with the needs of Egypt.
At the same time, these and other political
figures, as well as the heads of the SCAF, repeated that Egypt would abide by
its international obligations.
The Muslim Brotherhood – who, with other
Islamic parties, carried three quarter of the new parliament – made
contradictory statements concerning the treaty and what they will do when they
form the new government is anybody’s guess. They will also have to decide what
to do regarding Iran, since contacts were stopped as soon as Elaraby understood
that Tehran was not changing its policy and was still very much a threat to
Under president Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood,
then a banned movement, did have contacts with the mullahs of Iran and gave
their blessings to Hamas’s ties with that country.
“What now?” America
worries. Will the army relinquish power peacefully, and let the Brotherhood
steer Egypt toward an uncertain future? Will there be more violence, as the
events of last week showed? One thing is certain: Egypt is no longer to be
relied upon. A dialogue of a sort is ongoing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but is
going nowhere. “Bright Star” and its joint exercises are on hold amid growing
tensions between the former friends and allies. At the same time, relations
between Israel and Egypt have gone from cold to glacial, though cooperation on
the prevention of terror is still going on after a fashion. Is Egypt, doing its
best to broker a deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, still focused
on stopping more and more sophisticated weaponry from reaching Gaza? It does not
According to recent reports, the flow of arms from Sudan and now
from Libya is turning into a flood. Terrorist organizations are taking over
Sinai and Egyptian authorities appear helpless.
A frustrated America is
torn between keeping the alliance alive at all costs and condemning blatant
violations of human rights, such as leaving 60 dead and thousands wounded in
quashing demonstrations and targeting Copts taking to the streets to protest
Muslim harassment and burning of churches. US Secretary of State Clinton did
warn the SCAF not to use excessive violence and urged the army to transfer its
powers to civilian authority, but to little avail.
Then there was the
raid on the offices of 17 NGOs funded by foreign sources in December. Documents
were seized and all operations halted. Three of these organizations were
directly linked to the United States: the National Democratic Institute, the
International Republican Institute and Freedom House. All were devoted to
monitoring human rights and working toward democracy. All appeared to be in
violation of the law because they were not registered as organizations receiving
funds from foreign sources and might be prosecuted at the end of the ongoing
investigation. No amount of entreaties from the State Department swayed Egyptian
authorities, nor did an appeal to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi by 11 senators.
The senators then turned to the foreign relations and finance committees, and
asked them to apply pressure to stop the investigation and to ensure that the
NGOs could resume their activities by registering them. They stressed that
failure to do so, and measures taken against the members of these NGOs would be
a matter of grave concern, and might lead to a suspension of American aid.
Similar protests were heard from Congress.
There was no answer from
Cairo. This led to an unprecedented step by the American lobbyists who had been
representing the Egyptian defense establishment in Washington: They denounced
the lucrative $1m. yearly contract signed in 2007 and declared they would no
longer work for Egypt. It did not help either.
The situation got worse.
All NGOs workers, including six Americans, were prevented from leaving the
country. The six Americans, fearing arrest, then took refuge in their embassy to
wait on developments.
One of them is the son of US Secretary of
Transportation Raymond LaHood. Sen.
John McCain, who heads the
International Republican Institute, called on Egyptian authorities to stop
harassing the workers and put an end to the “unjustified”
At the beginning of last week, US Secretary of Defense
Leon Panetta personally called Tantawi and asked him to let the Americans leave
the country. No results so far.
There is an effort on both sides to
minimize the issue. Mahmoud Eisa, the Egyptian minister for industry and foreign
trade who was recently in the US, said that this was “a purely judicial
Faiza Abu el-Naga, the minister for planning and international
cooperation, declared that Egypt and the US agreed that the alliance between the
two was more important that the NGO crisis. Mark Toner, the spokesman for the
State Department, affirmed that the political process in Egypt was ongoing,
adding that forbidding a number of American citizens from leaving the country
was a cause for concern and that Egyptian authorities have to deal with that
However, the crisis is damaging the image of Egypt in America.
More importantly, it demonstrates that the SCAF is not afraid of a clash with
its closest ally.
Yet Egypt needs American aid, technology and
investments; it needs American help in obtaining loans and subventions from
international organizations. In a telephone call to Field Marshal Tantawi on
January 20, Obama discussed all these issues as well as Egypt’s request of
from the International Monetary Fund.
Obama reiterated his
preoccupation with the NGOs problem but got no satisfactory
Though the NGOs are not registered, it is not for want of trying.
They submitted the necessary documents under Mubarak’s regime, and received no
answer; it was seen as a form of tacit acceptance. Thus, the raid on the offices
of these organizations with no warning suggests that the army is not worried
about a possible crisis with the United States. Yet it does not make sense,
since Egypt needs America more than ever.
However, Egypt is making no
effort to appease and insists that the judicial process will be carried out to
Congress, which authorized American aid for 2012, did make it
conditional on an orderly transfer of power to civilian authorities, adding that
this meant free elections as well as the freedoms of expression, association,
religion and due process.
An Egyptian delegation is in Washington to
discuss next year’s military assistance.
Apparently a routine meeting,
but in the present context, they might get a clear warning.
hastened to jettison his former ally and called for Mubarak to “go, go now” –
thus precipitating his fall – may have thought that the Egyptians would be
grateful to him. He was wrong.
In fact, America’s image has further
The United States is perceived as being on the wrong side.
The overwhelming majority that sent an Islamic wave to the parliament shows that
Egypt is not ready yet for democracy and looks askance at the great country that
is a symbol of democracy. The SCAF has been as dictatorial as Mubarak in running
the country, discrimination against the Copts is increasing, and the country’s
foreign policy is taking a new orientation – three events that have baffled and
dismayed the United States. Now Egypt’s blatant disregard of America’s
legitimate concern about its citizens raises the question: Is the country, under
the leadership of the Brotherhood, deliberately distancing itself from its
former ally? The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is
a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.