When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year, there was immediate concern in Washington about the future of U.S. relations with Egypt. Mubarak, though a tyrant, had been a reliable ally, which explained why the Obama administration temporized about whether he should step down. Once he was gone and a supposedly transitional military council promised elections, a new concern arose: that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups would dominate a new elected government and — in the worst-case scenario — renounce the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty.
A year later the treaty is intact and the political party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the most seats in the parliament, is not agitating for its renunciation. But Egyptian-American relations are threatened from another quarter: military leaders who still seem wedded to the old ways. They have launched a campaign of harassment against nongovernmental agencies that promote democracy.
Police in December raided 17 such organizations, including the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute, as well as various foreign and local groups, confiscating records and computers. Last week it was reported that at least half a dozen Americans working for the NGOs, including the son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, had been prevented from leaving Egypt. Supposedly they are being detained as part of an investigation of whether NGOs failed to obtain required licenses from the government. More likely, the military objected to their contacts with democratic activists. Military leaders have claimed that "foreign hands" are responsible for instability in the country.
The Obama administration has reacted with appropriate forcefulness to the crackdown. The president reminded Egypt's military leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, that Congress has conditioned continued military aid on progress toward democracy; that warning was then reiterated publicly by a State Department official. Egypt receives $1.3 billion a year in military aid from the U.S., primarily to shore up its commitment to peace with Israel. Notwithstanding that linkage, resentment against Egypt is growing in Congress.
It would be tempting but naive to think that the Egyptian military's policies are temporary just because it has promised to transfer power to the parliament and a president to be elected in June. Even with elections and a new constitution, the military is expected to retain considerable power. If it wants to retain close — and lucrative — ties with the United States, it will allow space for democratic organizations to help build a new Egypt — or face the political consequences.