Move to Shelter 3 Americans Points Up U.S. Rift With Egypt
The State Department’s decision to provide refuge for three U.S. pro-democracy workers in Egypt illustrated the widening gulf between Washington and an ally it considers key to stability in the Middle East.
After a month of friction over the status of Americans working to promote democracy in Egypt, U.S. officials confirmed Monday that they had agreed to provide shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to the three, who fear they could be arrested or physically harmed because of their activities.
The three are Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and two other employees of the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded group that seeks to promote democratic practices around the world, say employees of other private groups. The government has barred the workers from leaving the country as it proceeds with a criminal investigation of what it perceives as foreign meddling in Egyptian politics.
The dispute highlights how much U.S. leverage has diminished since the revolution a year ago that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak. The U.S. has only begun reaching out to the Islamists who now dominate parliament, after decades of keeping them at arm’s length. Activists pushing for more Western-style democracy remain critical of the Obama administration for supporting Mubarak too long.
The Egyptian military, a bulwark for U.S. policy in the region for 30 years, holds the real power in Egypt, even after the parliamentary elections. It appears to have concluded that Washington needs it to protect the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty and contain Islamic extremism — and that the U.S. won’t risk a rupture in the relationship by following through on threats to withhold $1.3 billion in annual aid, most of it to the military.
“We’ve reached a crisis point in the relationship,” said Charles Dunne, head of Mideast programs for Freedom House, another U.S. group that promotes human rights and democracy. “This is the last thing needed by the Egyptians, who depend on U.S. help … and it’s just bewildering to the administration.”
But, he added, “it seems to just keep getting worse.”
In the month since Egyptian officials raided the offices of 17 U.S.-funded and Egyptian nongovernmental groups, American officials have been demanding that the military return confiscated money and property, reopen the groups’ offices and restore their freedom to provide advice and technical assistance to Egyptian groups seeking to make their way in the evolving political system.
Yet U.S. officials and private organizations say the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has refused to give ground.