The U.S. is losing old friends and can't win new ones in the new Egypt.
Trying to secure a way home for seven American democracy experts trapped in the country, the Obama administration is facing a wrathful campaign of retribution from Hosni Mubarak's old allies of the dictatorship, which the U.S. long supported but then turned away from last year.
It is getting no help from the most legitimate force now in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a sympathetic ear but little concrete support from an unpopular military leadership that has long benefited from U.S. largesse.
One year after the revolution that chased Mubarak from power, no one wants to be seen as too close to the United States.
After watching the U.S. deliver billions of dollars in aid to prop up Mubarak over three decades of authoritarian rule, the political parties that have risen from the ashes of his dictatorship see no value in doing Washington's bidding. The calculation holds even when it comes to defending U.S. groups that long championed democracy for Egyptians, or even when more than $1.5 billion may be at stake.
The dispute began in December when security forces raided the offices of nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding, seizing documents and computers. Among those affected were the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists. Several Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy while their status remains unclear.
The allegations against the groups include trying to foment unrest in Egypt.
"Trial with the possibility of prison time for our staff appears the most likely outcome at present," Lorne Craner, the IRI president, told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
To resolve the crisis, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have personally engaged top officials in Egypt's military-led government to end the investigations of democracy workers and allow U.S. citizens on a no-travel list to leave Egypt.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey visited Cairo last week in another unsuccessful bid for a solution, and the logjam has led to increasing threats to withhold the United States' annual aid to Egypt. U.S. Sen. John McCain will lead a congressional delegation on yet another such effort in the coming days.
But administration officials are hesitant to push the issue too far. Despite Mubarak's ouster, the U.S. is eager to salvage an alliance with Egypt that has been a foundation of stability in the Middle East since the late 1970s, ensuring peace between the Arab world's most populous country and Israel. Ending U.S. assistance programs only a year after Egyptians braved the repression in Cairo's Tahrir Square would hardly be a vote of confidence in Arab democracy.
"I am always reluctant to come to the stark conclusion about cutting aid," Dempsey told a congressional panel Thursday. "Cutting off aid and therefore cutting ourselves off from them means that the next generation won't have that benefit, and I don't know where that takes us, to tell you the truth."
Still, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted that a failure to resolve the situation with the Americans "may have an impact on all kinds of other aspects of our relationship with Egypt, including our ability to support them economically." For the military assistance to go through, she noted, Clinton must certify to Congress sometime in spring that Egypt is promoting freedom of speech and religion and the rule of law. "She has not made those decisions yet," Nuland said.
Congress is impatient.
At a congressional hearing Thursday, congressmen took turns lambasting the Egyptian military, judiciary and new Islamist force for failing to advance the case of the trapped Americans.
In testimony by the presidents of the four nongovernmental organizations under investigation in Egypt, congressmen were urged to cut off any relations with Egypt's International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a Mubarak-era holdover described as the "ringleader" of the crackdown, or cut off military aid to the country entirely. Aboul Naga is in charge of handling U.S. assistance funds, an irony not lost on those who spoke at the hearing.
"One dimension of this issue cannot be brushed aside: foreign assistance," said Rep. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He said the U.S.-Egypt relationship has been a boon for U.S. interests and stability in the Middle East, after decades of hostility when Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser led his country down a "stridently anti-Western and anti-U.S." path. Berman warned, however, that "this NGO crisis raises the specter that there are perhaps some in Egypt who would like to see the pendulum swing back again to the bad old days."
In a move that has increased tension, state media this week published testimony by Aboul Naga to two judges investigating allegations the groups tried to foment unrest in Egypt. Aboul Naga claimed the United States and Israel did not want Egypt to prosper following Mubarak's ouster, so they resorted to the creation of chaos. She also accused some of the groups of being "Jewish" fronts.
But if Aboul Naga spearheaded the crackdown, support for it has spiraled far wider since. The military, besieged by complaints from disenchanted liberals and empowered Islamists, appears unable to muster enough strength to intervene in what it calls an independent judicial process, despite what U.S. officials say is a shared wish to see the problem resolved. In a very disappointing action for Washington, the Muslim Brotherhood broke its silence Wednesday by praising the officials carrying out the crackdown and supporting their "nationalist position."
Nuland stressed that some Egyptian advocacy groups, facing similar pressures, were speaking out for the U.S. But she regretted that parties that participated actively in U.S. democracy-building programs and then succeeding in recent parliamentary elections have held back. The Brotherhood was the biggest winner of Egypt's recent votes.
"You can't have it both ways, although some will try to in this highly political season in Egypt," Nuland told reporters. She blamed Egypt's media, which has gone as far as accusing the U.S. of trying to carve up Egypt into smaller countries, and politicians she refused to identify for drumming up anti-American sentiment "for narrow self-promotion and nationalist purposes," poisoning the public debate.
"We don't pick candidates; we don't put our thumb on the scale of elections," she said. "We support Egyptian political parties, election observers, etc., who want to learn how to do campaigning. And we are open for business for anybody who wants to participate in these programs."