by Patrick Goodenough
A top Muslim Brotherhood official has warned that any cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt could affect Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel – the latest sign that Egypt’s emerging political forces intend to call Washington’s bluff over the diplomatic dispute triggered by a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.
Egyptian judges have referred 16 Americans and 27 others linked to NGOs for trial, accusing them of using foreign funds to encourage disruptive protests. Among the targeted NGOs whose assets and funds have been seized are the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.
On Capitol Hill, the chorus of senior lawmakers calling for aid to Egypt to be suspended over the affair is growing, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned that the funds could be in jeopardy.
So far, the defiant response from Cairo has been attributed mostly to government figures with links to the deposed Mubarak regime, including the anti-Western minister for international cooperation, Fayza Abul-Naga. The military-appointed Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri – who also served during the Mubarak era – told reporters last Wednesday that the authorities “won’t change course because of some aid.”
But now the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which won almost 50 percent of the seats in recent legislative elections and dominates parliamentary committees, is making its position clear, too.
Any U.S. aid cut to Egypt, top MB lawmaker Essam el-Erian told the pan-Arabic al-Hayat newspaper, would violate the U.S.-brokered 1979 peace agreement with Israel.
The Jerusalem Post quoted Erian as saying that if the U.S. cuts aid to Egypt, the MB would consider changing the terms of the peace treaty. He is warning that the U.S. should understand that “what was acceptable before the revolution is no longer.”
Erian chairs the parliamentary foreign affairs committee and is deputy leader of the MB’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
The FJP was an early critic of the crackdown on the NGOs (although it also said Egyptian NGOs should get their funding from Egyptians). But threats to cut U.S. aid appear to have rallied various factions behind the government, feeding into long-held suspicion of and hostility towards the West.
“This is only the beginning of the anti-American populism/nationalism/Islamism we are going to be seeing in Egypt from now on,” Mideast expert Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, wrote in a column Sunday.
“What’s amazing is that nobody is pointing out that if an Egyptian government is willing to risk U.S. aid and have a confrontation on this small issue, what are they going to do regarding big issues?’ Rubin said. “What happens when the Egyptian government moves toward Islamism or helps Hamas fight Israel on some level? We have been told that fear of losing U.S. aid will constrain Egypt. But we are now seeing that this simply isn’t true.”
Egyptians don’t want US aid
Among the biggest uncertainties sparked by the toppling of Mubarak a year ago was the future of the peace treaty. After four wars involving the two neighbors – in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 – the treaty negotiated at Camp David led to Israel handing back to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, an area three times bigger than Israel itself, which it had captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
Although never particularly popular in Egypt, the agreement kept the peace between the former foes for three decades and secured Egypt more than $1.3 billion in U.S. military and economic aid each year.
Legislation signed into law last December ties the provision of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt in fiscal year 2012 to certification that the government in Cairo “is supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subcommittee, inserted the language. He warned this month that the NGO clampdown would affect the certification requirements.
Other lawmakers who have warned the aid is in jeopardy include House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.); Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subcommittee; and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
A Gallup poll, released last week, but conducted before the furor over the NGO prosecutions, found that a large majority of Egyptians – 71 percent – are opposed to U.S. aid.
About half of the poll respondents said they supported Egypt receiving aid from international institutions, and 68 percent were in favor of aid from other Arab countries.
James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that while Americans would naturally be upset if the recipients of their hard earned money are ungrateful, “gratitude isn’t the primary objective of U.S. foreign aid”
“Washington doles out aid primarily based on calculations about how to advance U.S. strategic interests. And the United States certainly has great interests at stake in how Egypt’s political transition plays out even if it doesn’t have a lot of influence over where it ends up.”
Over the past year, Americans’ views of Egypt have deteriorated significantly. A Gallup poll a year ago found favorable ratings had dropped from 58 percent in 2010 to 40 percent a year later, with more Americans having a negative than a positive view of Egypt for the first time since Gallup began polling the issue in 1991.
The trend was borne out in a survey by the Arab American Institute (AAI), released on Thursday, in which only 33 percent of respondents said their attitudes regarding Egypt were favorable, compared to 34 percent who said they viewed Egypt unfavorable light.
The AAI said Egypt’s favorable ratings among Americans in polls since the 1990s had been much higher – between 55-65 percent.Patrick Goodenough
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