Sooner or later it was bound to come to post-Mubarak Egypt: the disagreement between Egyptians and Americans over whether and on what terms the United States should continue to give the Egyptian government more than $1.5 billion a year in military and economic aid. But few could have predicted the aid debate would rise over a relatively petty dispute regarding American-backed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have been operating in Egypt for years, without licenses perhaps but with the full knowledge and tacit acceptance of the Egyptian authorities.
The Egyptian judicial authorities are pressing ahead with plans to prosecute more than 40 foreign NGO workers, including Americans who have taken refuge in the US embassy in Cairo. American politicians have threatened to withhold or cut the aid permanently if the charges are not dropped and the Americans allowed to leave the country. The US State Department, more cautiously, says that failure to reach a solution will affect the administration’s ability to help Egypt economically. Even the $3.2 billion in International Monetary Fund assistance Egypt is seeking to support its current account could be at stake.
So how did it get to this stage, especially when the prime rationale for US aid to Egypt, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, is not in any serious danger? None of the explanations are fully satisfactory.
Some speculate that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the group of generals who have been running Egypt for the past year, whipped up a xenophobic frenzy to enhance their patriotic credentials and discredit the hardcore revolutionaries who continue to call for their immediate departure. The generals have pledged to hand power to an elected civilian president by the end of June but their commitment to similar promises leaves room for doubt). Besides, they have no obvious interest in jeopardizing the $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid, which enables them to free up defense budget money to support their comfortable lifestyles.
Others blame Planning and International Cooperation Minister Fayza Aboul Naga, the only cabinet minister to have survived from the Mubarak era, who touts that the revolution last year was an American conspiracy to weaken Egypt. Bizarrely, Aboul Naga would in that case be acting alone against the interests and in defiance of the wishes of the generals, although she is reputed to have retained her cabinet position because she has one or more influential patrons on the military council. Another theory is that mysterious relics of the Mubarak regime, trying to provoke conflict of any kind, have promoted the investigation of NGOs from within the system. That begs the question of why SCAF and the government cannot counteract the influence of such forces.
The dispute over the NGOs, which include the foreign-assistance affiliates of the two big American political parties, has revealed the internal Egyptian debate over how a democratically elected government should deal with Israel, and whether it should accept aid from the US at all. The Muslim Brotherhood, holding almost 50 percent of the seats in the recently elected parliament and bound to dominate the next government, is keeping its options open. If the US cuts the aid, Egypt would have to reconsider the peace treaty with Israel, a Brotherhood spokesman said. But the corollary of that is that if the aid continues the peace treaty is safe — some comfort for the US and Israel, for whom the peace treaty is central to their regional policy. That’s also very much in line with SCAF's thinking; Wikileaks documents show that the generals see the aid money as the price Washington pays for peace with Israel.
American army generals also want the aid to continue; they value the right to fly warplanes over Egypt at will, preferential treatment for US warships passing the Suez Canal and the cozy relationship with their Egyptian counterparts.
The best-placed candidates in Egyptian presidential elections in May are also happy to take American money, if the terms are right. Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, for example, dismissed the NGO dispute as hot air and political theater. “There’s no patriotic body that rejects financial support and cooperation with others in the interests of the country,” he said in an interview.
So everyone may get their way except the Egyptian people who overwhelmingly favor ending the special, and sometimes humiliating, relationship with Washington.