March 5, 2012

U.S.-Egyptian Relations: On To the Next Problem

A collection of families breathed a temporary sigh of relief last Wednesday when 7 Americans and 8 other employees of U.S.-funded NGOs were allowed to leave Egypt on bail. Now they can watch the aftermath unfold as they await their April court date.

As expected
by Egyptians and observers alike, the sudden release of NGO personnel triggered a new cycle of dilemmas between Washington and Cairo. No political actor on any side expects the crisis to impact U.S-Egyptian relations in the long-term; these links and their strategic implications are too big to fail. Yet the alternative of a dysfunctional, imperialistic relationship fails to offer a sustainable environment for Egypt’s democratic growth. Some long-range objectives - Israel’s treaty, Gaza, Iran - dominate the country’s internal politics by favoring Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and negotiating with the increasingly powerful Muslim Brotherhood. In keeping these interests at the forefront of U.S. policy, the Obama administration has been consistently overwhelmed in the moment as it scrambles from problem to problem.

Bending without breaking works for Washington - not so much for Egyptians trying to build a new future.

According to lead judge Mohammed Shukry, “The problem started with the requests to lift the travel ban on the foreigners.” Skukry, who quit the case last week citing “political pressure,” didn’t reveal the source of this pressure to Al-Ahram, but Egyptians know that the SCAF endured two months of stress from Washington. U.S. officials, both military and non-military, held a series of consultations with Field Marshall Hassan Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami Hafez Anan (well connected inside the Pentagon) and Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri (another former Mubarak appointee). By granting a $4 million bail over parliament and the court system, the SCAF drew additional attention onto its private negotiations with Obama administration.

The issue could factor into Egypt’s presidential elections if improperly resolved. Candidate Hazem Abu Ismail Saad released a statement urging Egyptians to, “Look at how they organized the whole issue. It started with Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State announcing that the situation will be solved, which meant that she knew exactly what was going to happen.”

Mimicking a potentially explosive reaction in April, the wake of Thursday’s exodus dispersed throughout Egypt’s social structure. Mohamed ElBaradei called the ruling a “fatal blow to democracy,” dealing a secular blow to America’s way of doing business. al-Katatni, the speaker of Egypt’s lower house of parliament, said an inquiry would be opened into the “violations to Egypt’s sovereignty and dignity,” and expects ranking officials to testify. Another Brotherhood MP, Akram El-Shaer, warned that "the departure of the Americans who were initially banned from traveling is the most dangerous thing that happened after the revolution.”

The Brotherhood, which chairs both houses of parliament, has been implicated in easing U.S. pressure, a claim denied by the party. This notion arose after a favorable statement followed a visit from Senator John McCain. While the Brotherhood does appear to be leveraging both sides of the crisis, supporting foreign-based NGOs differs from supporting Egypt’s legal process. Egyptians who don’t believe the NGOs are guilty of foreign interference can also oppose interference within their legal and political systems, a distinction that Washington either fails to understand or consciously ignores. The application of justice is based on credible equality - if this case can be overruled, what else can be subverted?

“There is no truth to any reports that the Muslim Brotherhood had any role in this decision,” Rashad Al-Bayoumi, the group’s deputy leader, told the AP on Friday. “We do not allow anyone inside Egypt or outside of Egypt to interfere in the judicial process.”

This political battle is now directly overlapping the writing of a new constitution.

The Obama administration naturally seeks all charges dropped outside of court, requesting the same exemptions that have accumulated decades of resentment in the Middle East. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland told reporters that the White House continues to pursue “the ultimate outcome of the legal process” and the reinstatement of all NGSs. A decision on $1.3 billion in military aid will be made after April’s review of Egypt’s democratic progress (this list generally favors the SCAF’s continuation plans). Nuland repeated what has become a standardized reply to complaints over the SCAF: “The United States is committed to supporting the transition to democracy in Egypt, and we welcome the progress that has been made by Egypt in conducting free elections for both houses of parliament.”

"Despite the recent strains, and differences on certain issues, the fundamentals of this strategic relationship remain strong.”

Though true to a point, this claim can no longer be verified with the accuracy preferred by Washington. Although the U.S. government has grown adept at outrunning the consequences of expedient behavior, America’s foreign policy and image does feel the negative effects over time. The current NGO crisis stems from
Fayza Aboul Naga and the SCAF's manipulation of an unpopular America. Relations with the SCAF and various political actors remain stable because their interests are too large for the revolutionaries to impact, however this foundation offers an unstable platform to transform Egypt and positively influence the region.

By intervening in Cairo’s courts, Washington managed to offend Egypt’s revolutionaries, anti-revolutionaries, political parties, neutral Egyptians and potentially the SCAF itself. Revolutionaries complain that Egypt’s new political order cloned itself from Mubarak’s era - no coincidence that U.S. policy did the same.

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