The uneasy relations between post-Mubarak Egypt and the United States plummeted further when Judge Ashraf al-Ashmawy announced Monday, Feb. 6 that the state would put 43 pro-democracy activists on trial, including 19 Americans.
All of them are affiliated with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute in Washington DC. They are to be charged with “accepting funds and benefits from an international organization” to pursue an activity “prohibited by law” and “carrying out political training programs.”
Investigative judges in Cairo said they all face up to five years in prison. "The case is very big and is a very deep case that includes hundreds of people, organizations and entities," Judge Sameh Abu Zaid said Wednesday.
One of the Americans is Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former congressman from Illinois. Another is Julie Hughes, the Egypt country director for the National Democratic Institute.
Egypt is acting for “a correction of the situation, protection of national security and assertion of sovereignty,” said Fayza Aboul Naga, minister of planning and international cooperation. He accused the US of breaking past agreements to finance unregistered organizations and to cap annual funding to registered groups at $20 million.
”We noticed that unregistered organizations and private companies were being funded,” he added. “The controls aren’t an Egyptian invention, but are in all countries. As a matter of fact, we are more flexible than the States.”
Cairo is deaf to threats to cut off US aid
By bandying emotive expressions like “sovereignty” and “national security” in the highly-charged Middle East climate, the Egyptian minister insinuated that American funds were supporting groups engaged in subversive action against the Egyptian government. This grimly defined the depths to which US-Egyptian relations had sunk.
Officials in Cairo did not back down even after the White House intervened in the effort to obtain the detained Americans' release and White House spokesman Jay Carney's warned: “These actions could have consequences for our relationship, including our assistance programs. But I don’t want to speculate about what actions might precipitate a response on our part along those lines, except to say that we take this very seriously.”
And when, last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr explicitly in Munich that the $1 billion of American financial assistance to Egypt was at risk, all he said was: “We are doing our best to contain this but … we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has twice called Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, chairman of Egypt’s interim ruling body SCAF, to discuss the dispute and demand that that restrictions be lifted on the Americans' departure. Panetta said he told Tantawi: “Our ability to maintain that relationship is being impacted by how this matter is being handled, and so for that reason I urged him to do everything in his power to try to allow these individuals the opportunity to be able to leave the country."
Tantawi indicated he would “try to help,” but Panetta has not heard from him since.
Washington has lost its partner in Cairo
On Tuesday, February 7, a delegation of Egyptian generals cancelled without warning a meeting that had been scheduled with two senior US senators, Carl Levin, the Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain, the top Republican on the panel. The officers' abrupt departure following a call to return home was taken in Washington as a snub.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report that US officials found it painfully ironic that a revolution whose proponents had gained the most from the instruction and guidance offered by American NGOs had turned around to bite the hand that fed them.
According to our Middle East sources, the US-Egypt crisis is running out of control because administration strategists cannot figure why it started and who is behind it. At the moment, they are examining three hypotheses:
1. Quite simply, Egypt’s current rulers believe Washington needs them more now than at any time in the last three decades when Hosni Mubarak was president. The Armed Forces willingly partnered the US for engineering his fall, according to this reasoning, but the revolution's aftermath has raised the Islamist parties to the top and relegated Egypt's liberal and secular factions to the outer margins of the political scene, leaving the United States with no partners in Cairo after the military hands power over to elected civilian rule.
When the Obama administration recognizes this, the crisis will be resolved, according to this view.
The crisis with Washington: Brainchild of intelligence chief Murad Muwafi?
2. Alternatively, the Muslim Brotherhood, after winning control of the Egyptian parliament, does not want US-Egyptian pro-democracy NGOs breathing down its neck and watching every step as it moves ahead with its planned takeover of government institutions and possibly the presidency. The Brotherhood is therefore working hand in glove with the SCAF to get the US democracy activists out of the way.
This theory ties in with the military junta's decision this week to bring forward by a month – to March 10 – the earliest date for presidential contenders to register for the race. This allows the generals to hold presidential elections before the promised date of June.
It is not clear in Washington what deal the SCAF has struck with the Muslim Brotherhood in return for confronting Washington and how it will play out.
3. Some circles in Washington trace the crisis with the US to 61-year old Gen. Murad Muwafi, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate-GID, popularly known as the Mukhabarat, which is the most powerful security agency in the land. They suspect that after a year in this job, he has come up with this brainchild in the intrigue for winching himself up to the top slot in the national power stakes.
In this, he probably looks up to his predecessor, Gen. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's intelligence minister and right hand, as a role model.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources recall that Gen. Suleiman was widely seen in the Middle East and Washington too as the most pro-American figure in the Arab world – so much so that in he was dubbed "the best CIA agent in the Middle East."
Anti-American roots are deep
But then in July 2011, a month before Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown by the NATO-backed revolt in Libya,
Western intelligence agencies intercepted a private phone conversation between the Egyptian general in Cairo and Qaddafi in Tripoli, during which he made five points which finally exposed his real sentiments:
– Egypt always saw America as the archenemy of Arab regimes;
– (Mubarak’s) Egypt were onto Washington's schemes for cultivating the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations;
– The preaching and slogans of every US administration and pro-democracy group were just pretexts for putting Arab governments on the spot and making them bend to Washington’s will;
– Qaddafi should have caught on to this ploy. But now, said Suleiman, it was too late. He had relinquished Libya's weapons of mass destruction under accords signed with the United States which were only effective in the short term. The Americans, said Suleiman, had never felt bound by any guarantees to preserve Qaddafi's regime.
– Where the Libyan ruler erred most of all was his failure to appreciate that Egypt – not the United States – was his truest support and ally.
According to the third hypothesis, therefore, Gen. Muwafi and the entire senior Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate-GID echelon, whose members were mentored by Omar Suleiman, were quietly indoctrinated in his secret anti-American philosophy. It is past time for Washington to take this into account.