February 24, 2012

THE PROSECUTION of Americans for promoting democracy in Egypt has been a tale of deceit and false promises by the country’s ruling military council. Time and again the generals have told senior U.S. officials that the offices of U.S. nongovernmental organizations raided on Dec. 29 would be allowed to reopen and their equipment returned; that they would be registered to work in Egypt; and that the seven Americans banned from leaving the country while a criminal case proceeds would be allowed to leave. None of those pledges have been fulfilled. The trial of at least 16 U.S. citizens and 27 other people is due to begin on Sunday.

It’s possible that Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the military council chief, finds himself unable to deliver on the assurances he has given to President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others. It could be that the government will act after a face-saving court session.

But it seems equally likely that the military is using the case to fortify its position as it fights to preserve power over the democratic government that is supposed to take over by mid-year. The state-run media are using the prosecutions to whip up nationalist and anti-American sentiment, based on ludicrous charges that organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and International Republican Institute are plotting to overthrow the government and partition the country.

Gen. Tantawi and his colleagues have been told by a parade of U.S. visitors that U.S. aid to Egypt — including $1.3 billion in military funding — will be jeopardized if the prosecutions go forward. That they nevertheless have not stopped the cases suggests either that they are prepared to accept a suspension of aid as the price of their ugly power play or that they believe the Obama administration and Congress will blink — and turn over the money to avoid a rupture in relations.

Preserving ties with Egypt is an important U.S. interest — and Egypt, for its part, has little hope of reviving its stricken economy without U.S. and other Western support. Yet if the prosecutions go forward, the aid must be suspended. A concession by Washington would doom the work not only of U.S. groups but of hundreds of Egyptian civil society organizations working for liberal causes, from ending torture to empowering women. Worse, it would convince the military that the aid is invulnerable and encourage even bolder attempts to preserve the autocratic order of the past half-century.

Some in Washington worry that an aid cutoff would deprive the United States of influence in Cairo; they compare it to the suspension of aid to Pakistan in 1989. But the perpetuation of aid to the Egyptian military without any link to a democratic transition or the treatment of nongovernmental organizations would be a big step toward turning Egypt into a present-day Pakistan — a country where the military refuses to yield political power and backs U.S. enemies even while pocketing American aid.

In the end, an aid suspension might have a useful result beyond punishing the generals. It would give the United States and a new democratic government in Egypt a chance to start fresh and discuss from first principles how much aid, and what mixture of military and economic support, would best encourage Egypt’s development.