The USAID director in Egypt abruptly flew back to Washington on Thursday after less than a year on the job, the first major casualty of a row between the two longtime allies over American funding for pro-democracy groups.
Jim Bever left his post the day after the Obama administration chastised Egypt's leaders for stoking anti-American sentiment during the country's rocky transition to democracy. In the rare public rebuke, the U.S. said it had noticed mounting attacks and criticism of U.S. aid and motives.
A U.S. Embassy statement said Bever will be "returning to Washington to take on new responsibilities and prepare for his next deployment." It did not say why his tour was cut short.
The criticism of the U.S. is a sign that Egypt's military rulers are growing anxious over foreign aid they fear could strengthen the liberal groups behind Egypt's uprising at the expense of the military's own vast power. Those youthful, pro-democracy groups have grown more critical of the ruling generals lately over what they see as the slow pace of the transition away from authoritarian rule.
Bever has been at the center of a dispute over funding since March, when USAID — the American government organization that distributes international development aid — placed advertisements inviting non-governmental groups in Egypt to apply for U.S. funding. The ads attracted hundreds of applicants, who lined up outside USAID offices in a quiet suburb south of Cairo. Over the next few months, the American aid organization allocated millions of dollars to the groups.
This left the government seething. It insisted that the funding must go through official channels, and not directly to the groups. Those restrictions applied during the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, whose government tightly controlled the process.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, gave a speech in Washington and criticized the United States for funding pro-democracy groups without submitting to Egyptian government supervision. He said it violated Egyptian laws for funding non-governmental organizations.
"It is a matter of sovereignty," he said.
Elizabeth Colton, spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Egypt, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the U.S. is not interfering in Egypt's politics.
"Egyptian groups that apply for and receive grants from the United States are engaged in activities that are politically neutral. No funds are provided to political parties," she said.
Egyptian authorities this week opened a formal investigation into the funding issue, according to a judicial official involved in the process.
"A list of the likely beneficiaries of American funding has been compiled and we will investigate them one by one," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was in its early stages.
Other generals on the ruling council have accused two key reform groups of following a "foreign agenda" and of receiving funding and training from abroad, claims that suggest plotting against the country with foreign help.
The activist groups April 6 and Kifaya, Arabic for "Enough," fought back by lodging official complaints with the prosecutor's office against Maj. Gen. Hassan el-Roweini, the ruling council member who made the accusations. April 6 is also demanding an apology.
Kifaya and April 6, which both called for Mubarak's ouster years before the uprising, are credited with key roles in organizing the protests that toppled the president.
"This is all part of a military council plan to portray everyone protesting on the streets as paid by a foreign party," said activist Mona Seif. "The council is trying to build a reputation for itself as the sole protector of the revolution and the ultimate source of patriotism."
The military, according to activists, is fighting back against the protesters' criticism with a smear campaign and a get-tough policy that is designed to wrest back from the youth groups the prestige it earned from toppling Mubarak.
"This tiff has nothing to do with the funding issue," said Negad Borai, a human rights activist and lawyer. "It is all part of the military's strategy to limit the reach and resources available to civil society groups."
Claims of a "meddling foreign hand" have routinely found resonance among Egyptians. More than a few are convinced that the United States, Israel and others are constantly scheming against their nation and Islam, the faith of most Egyptians.
With the military whipping up xenophobia, there have been several instances in recent weeks of bands of self-styled spy-catchers arresting and turning over foreigners to authorities, accusing them of "subversive" activities such as photographing streets or bridges or talking with protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo, the birthplace of the uprising.
Since Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11, the military has arrested an Israeli-U.S. citizen for spying, expelled an Iranian diplomat, also for spying, and repeatedly warned Egyptians against "foreign hands" seeking to undermine their country.
The military has also decreed that no foreign observers would be invited to monitor Egypt's first democratic elections after the uprising, which are expected to be held later this year.
Amid all the xenophobia, anti-American sentiments have stood out.
The July 31 issue of a state-run magazine featured a cover depicting new U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson as holding a burning wad of dollars to the wick of a bomb wrapped in an American flag. The headline read: "The ambassador from Hell who lit a fire in Tahrir."
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday complained that the criticism was "inaccurate" and "unfair" and that personal attacks against Patterson were "unacceptable."
Still the U.S.-Egypt row is not likely to cause lasting harm to relations. Egypt's military and the U.S. government are bound by close links going back to the 1970s. The military has for more than 30 years received about $1.3 billion in annual U.S. assistance and frequently staged joint war games with U.S. forces.
Egyptian generals regularly travel to Washington for extended visits for talks with their American counterparts and visit military facilities.
Responding to criticism in the local media of the U.S. policy on funding non-governmental groups in Egypt, former U.S. Ambassador in Egypt Margaret Scobey suggested that the methods of the ruling generals were not much different from those of Mubarak.
"In the Mubarak era, this assistance was often labeled 'interference', and opposed by a government uncomfortable with hearing the voices of its own people," she wrote several months ago.