U.S. mishandling relations with Egypt

Last summer, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was received in Egypt with a barrage of rotten tomatoes. Protesters, mostly pro-democracy activists, shouted their rage for a very troubling reason: They believed, as many still do, that Washington wants the Muslim Brotherhood in power.

That’s one of the most astonishing of the many conspiracy theories swirling in that part of the world. Many Egyptian liberals, the people whose worldview is most closely aligned with the West, think Washington stands against them. The conspiracy’s notion is absurd, but democracy advocates are right to feel disappointed.

Washington wants to promote stability in the region, and its realpolitik views the Brotherhood as the most powerful force in Egypt, whether America likes it or not. But that oversimplifies the case and is producing bad policy.

A most perverse turn of events came a few days ago, when an Egyptian court convicted 43 representatives of foreign nongovernmental organizations, including at least 16 Americans and two Germans, who had been working to develop civil society, conducting democracy seminars and trainings. The NGO workers were sentenced to up to five years in prison in a sham trial that found them guilty of operating without a license.

One of the principal organizations, the respected nonpartisan Freedom House, said its office had been working diligently with Egyptian officials and had filed all required paperwork when it was raided, its workers detained and its property confiscated.

This comes as Egypt’s elected president, Mohammed Morsi, pushes legislation making it much more difficult for all NGOs to function. The country is becoming less democratic every day. The state prosecutor has gone after the most renowned activist bloggers, after newspapers, after writers for “insulting” the president or religion.

The NGO verdicts sparked international outrage, but it didn’t seem to trouble Washington all that much. The United Nations issued a statement accusing Egypt of assaulting fundamental human rights. And Germany, whose citizens were among those convicted, answered with fury.

Germany’s foreign minister described the decision as scandalous, and there are calls in parliament to end German aid to Egypt and sever diplomatic relations.

By contrast, the United States seems to be mostly taking the events in stride. The State Department issued a mildly worded statement on behalf of Secretary of State John Kerry, urging Cairo to “respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy.”

In fact, the American reaction was even worse than that. Days before the verdict was issued, with the case’s outcome in the balance, Kerry withdrew all American leverage without extracting anything in return. On May 10, Kerry waived the human-rights requirements on aid to Egypt, making it possible to deliver $1.3 billion in American military aid. It’s not the first time this has happened, but Kerry did it more quietly than in the past, without public pressure or admonishment. He simply signed the paper without a word.

The disappointment with the American government’s attitude towards the Islamic Brotherhood-dominated government is now extending to America’s European allies, who see Washington’s passivity as perplexing.

Relations with Egypt are admittedly complicated. The United States wants stability. It values close ties with the Egyptian military, and it wants to help encourage continuing quiet between Israel and Egypt. But if Washington sees aid as a means to gain some influence, what is the point of providing the aid without pushing for even the most basic consideration for U.S. citizens, and for the fundamental requirements of democratic development?

The bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, made up of some of the smartest foreign policy experts in the country, has written to President Obama urging him to take three important steps. First, he should tell Morsi that he has harmed U.S.-Egypt relations; that the United States rejects the proposed NGO law and demands a pardon of U.S. citizens convicted of phony charges. Second, the group urges a full review of the U.S.-Egypt relationship, including economic and military aid, as well as support for Cairo’s requests from international lenders. Finally, it advises that Secretary Kerry should start coordinating American policy towards Egypt with America’s European allies, particularly Germany. That would maximize the impact of policy decisions.

The current American policy towards Egypt is giving America no sway over a troubling government. It is doing little to help the prospects for democracy, and it is giving Egyptian liberals good reason to protest the visit of high-ranking American diplomats. It’s time for a change.

Read more Frida Ghitis stories from the Miami Herald

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