Six months after pro-democracy protesters ousted longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, U.S. efforts to help promote democratic reforms have created unexpected turmoil in Washington’s relationship with one of its closest allies in the Arab world.
The Obama administration’s plan to pour $65 million into Egypt this year to help organize new political parties has sparked a powerful backlash from Cairo’s interim military government, its Islamist parties and even some reform-minded activists.
The military government has portrayed groups that take U.S. funding as agents of a foreign government and has battled behind the scenes for months to try to stop Washington from giving money to pro-democracy groups outside Cairo’s direct supervision.
The dispute exploded into the open Wednesday when the State Department decried a “creeping” anti-Americanism in Egypt and complained that Cairo’s criticism of U.S. aid and motives is inaccurate and unfair.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned of “this kind of anti-Americanism that’s creeping into the Egyptian public discourse.” She also denounced personal attacks on Anne Patterson, the new U.S. ambassador, as “unacceptable.” A state-run magazine recently called Patterson the “ambassador from Hell.”
U.S. officials said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the matter July 28 with Egypt’s new intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Murad Muwafi, when he visited Washington.
“This means, at the end of the day, our influence is going to be diminished,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to Egypt during the Clinton administration.
The clash underscores Egypt’s wariness about America’s intentions even as Cairo continues to accept $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid. The dispute also reflects political maneuvering between the ruling military council and political reformers before key national elections this fall.
“We want help, but not interference,” Maj Gen. Said Elassar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said last month at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
But the America-bashing has had an effect. Public opinion polls indicate that Egyptian approval of the United States has plummeted to 5%, lower than during the George W. Bush administration, according to a July survey by Zogby International.
Other worrying signs also have emerged in the relationship.
The military, Egypt’s most powerful institution, has begun to chart a more independent course on foreign policy than in the past, including mending relations with two U.S. archfoes, Iran and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The government also has signaled that it is prepared to accept offers of $17 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states — a sign that Cairo wants stronger ties to authoritarian neighbors that hardly practice Western-style democracy.
The mood has grown more xenophobic in recent weeks as the military council, angered by regular sit-ins and protests challenging its power, has sought to portray dissident groups as dupes of foreign interests.
Gen. Hassan Roweini, another member of the council, suggested that the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the most prominent activist groups, was committing treason by “igniting strife between the army and its people.” Roweini sought to spread suspicions widely, charging that 600 Egyptian organizations had applied for U.S. assistance.
The April 6 movement has had contacts with U.S. organizations but denies taking aid.
Ali Selmi, deputy prime minister for political affairs, said Monday that the government “rejects any outside funding for Egyptian movements under the guise of supporting democracy.”
Nongovernmental groups are increasingly fearful of accepting help from abroad, said Fady Phillip, a member of the Maspero Youth Movement. “It’s become part of the culture. The army is creating this hypersensitivity, and no one wants to be accused of being a spy.”
The finger-pointing is especially provocative at a time when conspiracy theories claim that the U.S., Israel and other foreign forces are seeking to hijack the revolution.
Al Qaeda has tried to capitalize on such fears. In an audio message released this week, Ayman Zawahiri, the terrorist network’s new leader, accused America of usurping the revolution to protect its interests.
Egypt’s reform advocates are split on whether or not to accept U.S. aid. Some were disillusioned by three decades of U.S. support for Mubarak. Others simply want Egypt to shape its new political structure without outside involvement. And many simply don’t see U.S support as critical.
“U.S. influence in Egypt was not that deep anyway,” said Mustafa Kamel Sayed, a political science professor at American University in Cairo. “The U.S. did not influence the revolution.”
Eager to help stabilize Egypt’s wobbling economy last spring, Clinton convinced Congress to forgive $1 billion of Egyptian debt. She also redirected $65 million in economic aid to projects aimed at promoting democracy, including organizing political parties, and another $100 million to help provide a quick economic boost.
Egypt’s government welcomed the debt relief but was furious at help for new political parties. It also was outraged that the Obama administration was shifting economic aid to projects over which Cairo would have no control. Only about $40 million of the total $165 million has been distributed.
The move “was not the most popular decision we’ve ever taken,” said a senior administration official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Egypt also rebuffed offers of $3 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund and $1 billion from the World Bank because the offers would require economic reform and transparency.
Egypt’s military wants to continue receiving the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid. But a collision may occur there too.
Some House Republicans have declared that military aid should be cut if the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political faction that was banned under Mubarak, has any role in the new government — as it inevitably will.
In addition, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he wants more military aid shifted to economic support, a suggestion that has already alarmed Egyptian officials.
The senior administration official acknowledged that the relationship is in flux, but said the U.S. priority is clear: “We’ve got to do all we can to support a democratic transition.... Egypt is the main event.”
Richter reported from Washington and Fleishman from Cairo.