One year after the Arab spring began, the transitions to democracy remain bumpy. Because of its size and strategic importance, Egypt's struggles are of particular concern, and that concern was heightened this week as six U.S. citizens were forced to seek refuge in the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
Both U.S. and Egyptian officials were downplaying the incident, saying the six Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, were not in any physical danger. They just felt "more comfortable" at the embassy.
It's no wonder. All six worked for U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. As the names imply, the organizations are affiliated with the two major political parties in the United States. Their aims are to further real democracy in Egypt, whose future relations with both the United States and Israel are important to peace in the region.
Egyptian police raided the groups in late December, along with 15 other such organizations, both foreign and local, confiscating property and cash. The ruling military government accused the organizations of subversive activities, including giving money to Egyptian political parties, and they have vowed to investigate. In the meantime, the six Americans in question have been denied permission to leave Egypt.
At the time of the raids, officials at the organizations denied the allegations and said they had been operating for years under the administration of former president Hosni Mubarak without any trouble. Among the accusations of the new regime is that the groups are operating illegally without being registered. Officials at the organizations say they applied for registration more than five years ago and that the government, while dragging its feet on the registrations, is well-aware of what they are doing.
While this tug-of-war continues, the United States should be seriously questioning whether to continue providing the $1.3 billion in aid it provides annually to the Egyptian military. President Obama, who is currently preparing his recommended budget, is widely expected to include the money, but Congress has subjected further aid to certain conditions, including real progress toward democracy. That is a fair bit of leverage over the current situation that ought to be exercised.
The overthrow of Mubarak was an emotional high-point for the Egyptian people who had rallied day after day despite government crackdowns. Those rallies turned victorious when the military turned its support to the protesters. Since then, however, it has become painfully clear that the military, which promised to rule only until free elections could be held, wants desperately to hold onto power.
Now, people are protesting against the military rulers and are suffering as the military retaliates. Meanwhile, religious persecutions, especially against the minority Coptic Christians, have been allowed to persist with little concern by police or the courts.
Some observers say the raid of the groups may signal a split within the ruling military; that some in power may not have been aware or in support of the actions. Coincidentally, a delegation of Egyptian military leaders is scheduled to visit Washington this week for meetings that were scheduled before the current crisis escalated. U.S. officials say they plan to be firm and direct in confronting the situation.
Indeed they should be. Washington took a low-key approach to the overthrow of Mubarak, who had been an important ally. But the Obama administration clearly has supported the move toward democracy in Egypt, and it has a clear interest in making sure that movement succeeds.