Associated Press
Protesters march with a giant Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square in Cairo at a demonstration earlier this year.

WASHINGTON — Recent provocations by Egypt are both serious and mysterious.

In December, its government conducted a series of armed raids on respected human rights and democracy organizations. Egyptian courts are pursuing transparently fraudulent prosecutions against several dozen employees of those groups, including 19 Americans. Six American citizens are being kept in Egypt against their will. One is Sam LaHood, the son of the secretary of transportation.

All these actions seem designed to offend. But who in Egypt is capable of doing the designing? With Hosni Mubarak gone, the government is a riot of factions. The military remains powerful but insecure about its future role. Mubarak's permanent bureaucracy — members of the National Democratic Party — still grasp for influence. Emerging parliamentary leaders are enemies of Egypt's old guard, but hardly friends of America. In assessing Egypt's recent conduct, it is difficult to discern the working of a single will.

One proposed explanation for these events — pinning the blame on the Arab Spring — is certainly wrong. In fact, we are seeing the rage of a retreating elite. Mubarak's lackeys fear they may someday share Mubarak's cage. So they are attempting to deflect criticism by rousing resentment toward outsiders. Military leaders and apparatchiks who depended on American support for decades are now playing the anti-American card. It is the revenge of the lickspittles.

A cutoff of American assistance to Egypt — which runs at more than $1 billion a year — would be fully justified. But not everything justifiable is advisable.

America has a large stake in Egypt's future — and very few tools to influence it. The economic collapse of Egypt — a real possibility — would be a disaster for the region. Radicalism would grow wild in the ruins. Were Egypt to abandon its Camp David commitments, the stability of Israel's southern border could no longer be assumed. The quarantine of Hamas would be weakened.

None of this, in the end, may be preventable. But we don't yet know. During the next six months, Egypt will adjust to a new parliament, elect a new president and begin drafting a new constitution. During this formative period, America will want methods to influence events. Isolating Egypt might strengthen the wrong people at a pivotal time. It is easier for an engaged America to push for democracy, pluralism and sanity.

So the diplomats are left to their impossible, underappreciated job. The State Department is simultaneously threatening to cut off aid to Egypt and trying to cool tempers. It is expressing outrage while engaging in complex negotiations to release American citizens. It is attempting to apply immediate pressure while preserving some medium-term influence. This calibration is easy to criticize. It is harder to perform.

In dealing with Egypt, there are many sources of concern and fewer reasons for hope. The Arab Spring manages to fall into both categories. Mubarak succeeded in his lifelong work of corrupting and delegitimizing every source of authority except the Islamists. Over the decades, they organized in mosques — the one place Mubarak's rule did not reach — and established a reputation for political independence and moral rigor. Elections set in motion by the Arab Spring have given Islamists the upper hand in Egypt — a disturbing outcome.

But the Arab Spring has also created a new set of political expectations for governments in the Middle East. Egyptian citizens are no longer supine. If Egyptian Islamists rule like Mubarak — combining political oppression with economic mismanagement — they risk Mubarak's fate. Or at least this is the hope raised by Tahrir Square — the existence of some check on public arrogance and incompetence.

Whatever its ultimate intentions, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood seems to recognize this political reality. "Our priority is economic and political reform," says Brotherhood leader Sobhi Saleh. These are areas where America wants to provide assistance, raising the prospect of an American-Egyptian relationship that is better than mutual hostility.

But whoever now runs Egypt is putting all of that at risk. "Egypt will not kneel," says Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri — an odd statement coming from a government stomping on basic freedoms with a jackboot. The American Congress does not naively expect gratitude in exchange for foreign assistance. But it does expect cooperation at moments when our national interests are at stake. And the protection of American citizens from corrupt and spiteful prosecution is one of those interests.

For months, the Egyptian government has explored the limits of American patience, which it is just about to reach.

Michael Gerson's email address is [email protected]