THERE IS A grotesque incongruity in the tour around Washington this week of an Egyptian military delegation even as seven Americans who work for congressionally funded pro-democracy groups are prevented from leaving Cairo and threatened with criminal prosecution. What makes it worse is that the ruling military council refuses to recognize the seriousness of the crisis it has created in the U.S.-Egyptian alliance.
The persecution of the Americans, which has been escalating since their offices were raided Dec. 29, is an extraordinary provocation by the generals who succeeded Hosni Mubarak. Despite repeated appeals, including by President Obama, military council chief Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi has failed to deliver on promises to call off the witch hunt and return confiscated funds and property. Over the weekend, three of the Americans, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, moved into the U.S. Embassy compound in Cairo out of fear for their safety.
Meanwhile the Egyptian military delegation, headed by Fouad Abdelhalim, defense minister for arms affairs, is here on a business-as-usual mission to discuss security cooperation — including the weapons purchases Egypt makes with the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid it receives each year. The generals regard this funding as an entitlement, linked to the country’s peace treaty with Israel. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment.
Preserving the alliance with Egypt, and maintaining good relations with its military, is an important U.S. interest. But the Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended.
Administration officials say Gen. Tantawi has been warned repeatedly that the aid money is at risk. But they tend to blame Congress, which attached conditions to the 2012 military funding over the administration’s objections. Before aid is disbursed, the administration is required to certify to Congress that Egypt is holding free elections and protecting freedom of expression and association. Officials acknowledge that no certification will be possible while the prosecutions continue, and that funding could run out in March. But the legislation provides for the certification to be waived by the State Department on grounds of national security. That course must be ruled out.
The campaign against the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, along with a half-dozen Egyptian and European groups, is being led by Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga, a civilian holdover from the Mubarak regime. Ms. Aboul Naga, an ambitious demagogue, is pursuing a well-worn path in Egyptian politics — whipping up nationalist sentiment against the United States as a way of attacking liberal opponents at home. The regime’s calculation has always been that it can get away with such outrages because U.S. policymakers will conclude they can’t afford a rupture in relations with Egypt. But if such a break is to be avoided, the generals must be disabused of the notion that U.S. military aid is inviolate.