This weekend, the fracas over foreigners in Cairo is set to escalate when hearings begin against 43 workers (including 16 U.S. citizens) charged with operating without a license, receiving unauthorized foreign funds, and engaging in political activity. The drama is seven months in the making. Last July, Egypt's Ministry of Justice opened an investigation into the activities and funding of numerous (possibly as many as 400) nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The move came at the behest of Fayza Abul Naga, minister of planning and international cooperation. In the months that followed, her department refused to officially state or confirm any details of the wide-ranging probe. Then, in late December, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of several of the NGOs under investigation. And what began as an effort by one Egyptian minister to assert her control has turned into a game of international brinkmanship that has the potential to upend the security calculus of the Middle East.

After tensions escalated in December, numerous members of Congress made clear that the actions of the Egyptian government could jeopardize the annual $1.55 billion aid package to Egypt -- the United States' second largest, after the $3.1 billion it gives Israel annually. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution calling for an immediate end to the harassment and prosecution of NGO staff. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went much further when he introduced legislation that would suspend all U.S. aid to Egypt until the matter is resolved. On Monday, a group of U.S. senators including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) visited Cairo to meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other Egyptian leaders, trying to relieve some of the tension. They returned home with optimistic messages, suggesting that the Egyptian brass offered strong assurances of a swift resolution to the impasse.

How much faith Washington can put in those assurances, however, remains to be seen. Fueling the United States' impatience have been Cairo's confusing, and often conflicting, messages. Unlike the Mubarak era, when there were relatively clear lines of command, the past year in Egypt has been marked by the rapid emergence of multiple centers of power competing for political control. Egypt's actual foreign policy has been almost indecipherable. For example, after security forces raided the NGO offices, top Egyptian officials, including Tantawi, Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, and Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr, were quick to assure the United States that the maltreatment of U.S. citizens would cease, that all seized materials would be immediately returned, and that the offices would be able to reopen. Six weeks later, those have proved to be empty promises.

Conversations in Washington reveal that U.S. officials, by and large, do not believe that their counterparts in Cairo are being intentionally deceptive -- they assume that the Egyptians have simply promised more than they can deliver. For years, Abul Naga, who is one of the few top officials remaining from the days of Mubarak, has been opposed to any foreign funding that bypassed her ministry. And now she seems to be targeting U.S. influence specifically. Last week, the Egyptian press quoted Abul Naga as having portrayed the U.S. as trying to hijack Egypt's revolution. "The United States decided to use all its resources and instruments to contain [the January 25 revolution]," the government's official news agency, MENA, quoted her as saying, "and push it in a direction that promotes American and also Israeli interests."

But her charges against the NGOs ring hollow. For instance, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have made more than reasonable efforts to comply with Egyptian law. Both groups applied for registration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005 and have communicated regularly with the authorities about their activities and programs ever since. Both groups were told repeatedly that their registration would be granted, but it never was and no explanation was given. This experience is characteristic of that of many other organizations that have focused on politically sensitive issues, while groups with more innocuous goals have had their registration granted promptly. It is disingenuous for the Egyptian government to refuse to grant U.S. NGOs registration on political grounds and then claim that the investigation against them is an apolitical matter for the judiciary. Moreover, that many other international organizations operate in Egypt today without official registration underscores the selective, political nature of these attacks.

Members of Egypt's ruling military council have generally avoided the issue in public, perhaps in order to give them plausible deniability with Washington. Privately, they consistently argue to U.S. officials that they cannot intervene in independent judicial processes. But even if the generals are not the driving force behind the crackdown, it is quite unlikely that the investigation could have moved forward without their support. The military has held executive authority and ultimate decision-making power for the past year -- all cabinet ministers were appointed by the generals and report to them. 

Assuming that Abul Naga had to get the military on board before pushing forward with the NGO persecution, her case to them was simple and compelling. Egyptian democracy and human rights organizations are vocal critics of the military. As large protests have continued, it makes sense for the ruling cadre to cut off such organizations at the knees while also reinforcing the public narrative that the protests are the work of foreign agents seeking to sow chaos in Egypt. 

Yet it appears that some ranking members of the Egyptian military may have severely underestimated the backlash from Washington. In both private conversations and public statements, Pentagon and State Department officials who have recently visited Egypt and discussed the crisis describe the generals as initially incredulous that such a minor issue (in their view) could actually threaten the aid package. U.S. officials attest that they have been successful since in conveying how potentially explosive the issue could be, but it is unclear how much that has changed anyone's thinking in Cairo.

As for a resolution, one possible scenario is that Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs could grant registration to some of the targeted NGOs in the days ahead. This would clear the way for the courts to dismiss the charges against the NGOs or, perhaps more likely, for them to find those charged innocent. Such an approach could ease tensions while allowing Egypt's generals to officially maintain distance from the case. Yet Abul Naga could easily derail such a plan; throughout this debacle she and her allies have repeatedly employed carefully timed public remarks and leaks to reignite tensions.

There is one more important faction in Cairo to consider: the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, which now boasts a plurality of seats in the Egyptian Parliament. The People's Assembly has only been in session since January 23 and has yet to pass any legislation pertaining to the NGO crisis. Eventually, however, it will be up to the parliament to decide whether to pass a more permissive NGO law in line with international standards.

So far, the signals from the Brotherhood have been contradictory. On one hand, it is in the group's interest to support a freer environment for NGOs, considering the large number of Islamist associations aligned with the movement. This was reflected in a recent op-ed by Brotherhood General Guide Mohammad Badie, who wrote, "All political, intellectual, social, cultural and economic trends and forces in the country -- along with civil society -- must be allowed to operate and express their views." On the other hand, some Brotherhood leaders are taking a hard stand against foreign funding, unsurprising given that the movement is funded almost entirely by its Egyptian members and supporters.

As lawmakers, however, Brotherhood members have also made comments about what a change in the U.S.-Cairo aid relationship could mean. On February 12, Essam el Erian, vice chair of the Freedom and Justice Party and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the new parliament, made news when he pronounced that an interruption of U.S. aid would be a violation of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and would open the door for Egypt to change other terms of the treaty. That is no small claim. For more than three decades, that agreement -- including the billions in aid every year from the United States -- has served as a foundation for security arrangements throughout the Middle East.

Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military. But this crisis is exactly the moment to use this leverage. The fate of civil society in Egypt and beyond is very much at stake. If the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid can attack pro-democracy organizations with no real consequences, authoritarian governments worldwide will be emboldened to follow suit. As such, the administration should take a tougher line, making clear that military aid will certainly be interrupted unless the attacks on NGOs are halted and all charges are dropped. The White House deserves credit for having made support for civil society an important pillar of its approach to strengthening democracy worldwide. Now is the time to demonstrate the strength of that commitment.

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