After democracy-group crisis, U.S. seeking reliable partner in new Egypt

CAIRO — American officials say the negotiated end to a crisis involving pro-democracy workers has only underscored what remains a major obstacle in U.S.-Egyptian relations: the absence of a reliable partner following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

“One of our problems is we don’t really have an Egyptian government to have a conversation with,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in recent testimony to Congress, in the midst of a diplomatic effort that ended last week when Americans under criminal investigation were whisked out of Egypt. “And I keep reminding myself of that, because it is an uncertain situation for all the different players.”

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For now, aging Egyptian generals who once served Mubarak are running the country, the most populous in the Arab world. It was Mubarak-era holdovers, including Faiza Abou el-Naga, the planning and international cooperation minister, who led the charge against the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

U.S. officials hope the players will change after Egyptians elect a new president this summer. But they also recognize that they will be dealing with different and unknown centers of power, and they say their primary goal must be to build and strengthen a relationship with Egypt’s new leaders as the country makes a painful and bumpy transition to what many hope will be democracy.

Sam LaHood, the director of the International Republican Institute in Cairo and the most high-profile of the Americans who flew out last week, blamed the scandal on remnants of the Mubarak regime.

“The reality is, Egypt’s going to have to chart its own course in the future relationship with the U.S.,” he said in an interview Monday.

In many ways, the accusations that the Egyptian government aimed at the pro-democracy workers and the way the crisis was resolved have only deepened bitterness among many Egyptians toward the United States, which was seen here as Mubarak’s patron until not long before he was toppled from power last year.

With a newly elected parliament dominated by Islamists, U.S. officials say they are conscious that the transition will enter a critical new stage over the next two months, with the drafting of Egypt’s first post-revolution constitution, to be followed by a presidential election. Some say they worry that congressional anger at Egypt’s handling of the pro-democracy groups may complicate the stage ahead.

“Because of the focus on the NGO issue, that sort of basic message has been lost, which is that we are impressed with what the Egyptian people are trying to do, we are fully supportive of their efforts to build a democratic system,” Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said in an interview Monday with al-
Arabiya
, a Saudi-owned Arabic satellite news channel. “We do want to be partners with them long term. Now we have had to spend a lot of time, for example, talking to people on Capitol Hill to remind people of the long-term interest that we have in Egypt and the long-term benefits that we think that both countries have.”

Egypt became a strategic U.S. ally when it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Throughout the transition, U.S. officials have taken steps to ensure that the relationship continues. When it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing would emerge as the most powerful political force in the country, the U.S. administration reversed its policy of no contact with the group and reached out to it over the summer.

Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, said the anger in Egypt toward the United States after a year of government-backed state media campaigns to whip up xenophobia “is not something that’s easily reversible, and the way that the travel ban was lifted has provoked a super populist outrage.”

Hanna said that “popular opinion matters” in a way it never did under Mubarak’s autocratic rule.

 
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