Peoria Journal Star: U.S.-Egypt Relations Irreparably Damaged by Egypt’s Crackdown on NGOs
PEORIA — All’s well that ends well, one supposes. This page is glad that Peoria native Sam LaHood is or soon will be back on U.S. soil after previously being prevented from leaving Egypt, where he and others were accused of bogus crimes in their roles working for pro-democracy groups, in LaHood’s case the International Republican Institute. No doubt his parents – his father is U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – are relieved.
That said, no one should be quite ready to let bygones be bygones here. This nation’s relationship with Egypt has been damaged, if not irreparably. That is more Egypt’s loss than ours.
Diplomacy worked in this instance, and for that one is grateful, but no doubt American money talked louder than anything in securing the release of LaHood and six other Americans. All were employed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo working toward the establishment of democracy in that nation following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, a result of the protests and pressure from last year’s Arab Spring.
All in all, 16 Americans were charged – along with 27 others – with supposed “crimes” revolving around their alleged interference in Egypt’s political affairs. Never mind that all these NGOs (some with other nations’ backing, such as Germany) have never made any secret of their mission and have long been an accepted presence in that nation. Nine of the Americans got out before a travel ban was enforced. The others had sought shelter and protection at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Ultimately, Uncle Sam ponied up $4.8 million in bail money to secure Egypt’s permission for them to leave the country.
Beyond that, no doubt the fate of America’s $1.3 billion in military aid – 20 percent of that nation’s defense budget – and another $250 million in economic assistance came up during negotiations for their release. Just as the trials of these 16 have only been postponed – not dropped – so has this nation’s decision on whether to continue its financial assistance to Egypt.
One acknowledges the political unrest that now exists in Egypt, and the reluctance of the generals who rule the place to give up any of the perks of power they now have to make way for a civilian government. One also senses that this latest act of belligerence likely had far less to do with any transgressions committed by those Americans in the middle here than with this being the generals’ way of showing they can stand up to the man – Uncle Sam, in this case – for their public’s consumption. Essentially they were playing to the angry and paranoid mob.
They were also walking a very risky tightrope, especially when they threatened to back away from their 30-year-plus peace agreement with Israel. Seriously? And how would hostilities with Israel help rebuild Egypt’s economy, or bolster the budget reserves that are now in free-fall, or give its citizens the free speech and rule of law and educational opportunities that some gave their lives for, or insulate Egypt from infiltration by other Arab influences of considerably less-than-benign intentions? Do the Egyptians have any doubt that America would take Israel’s side in that divorce?
In fact an Egypt whose economy is a mess needs to concentrate on its domestic challenges, not some phantom menace in Israel. The U.S. can help Egypt do that, but as always, funding comes with strings attached, as it should. If Egypt believes it has now enhanced its leverage with this nation through such behavior, the president should make it clear, and Congress should confirm, that its leaders have misplayed their cards.
Ultimately it may have taken the visit of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to his counterpart in Egypt, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, to break this logjam. Perhaps it will require another general-to-general conversation to talk some sense into that country.
In the meantime, the Egyptian people will forgive those Americans – some of them in decision-making positions – who have come away from this experience with a very bitter taste in their mouths.