The Obama administration may believe the $1.3 billion a year the United States gives to Egypt provides it with leverage in the standoff over that country’s attempt to criminalize the activities of American non-governmental organizations that promote democracy and human rights. The indictment of 16 Americans and a refusal to let another six leave the country has rightly earned Egypt a stiff condemnation from Washington, which has sent Cairo a signal that further such misbehavior will make the passage of future aid packages problematic. But the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, which constitutes Egypt’s leading political party in the post-Mubarak era, has made it clear they aren’t impressed by President Obama’s concerns or any implicit threats from Congress. As the New York Times reports today, the Brotherhood is promising that any slowing of the U.S. gravy train will result in a “review” of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
This threat from the Brotherhood reinforces two key factors of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. The first is that most Egyptians have always thought of the 1979 pact that ended decades of war with the Jewish state as merely a financial bargain in which the United States paid them to keep the peace. The second is that the Brotherhood, much like the Islamists who run Iran, doesn’t think much of President Obama.
The peace between Israel and Egypt has remained ice cold even at the best of times during the long reign of Hosni Mubarak. But under his military successors, who must work in partnership with the Islamists of the Brotherhood and other extremists, the constituency for peace is virtually nonexistent. The only argument in favor of the treaty that makes any sense to either the military or the rest of a country (whose popular culture has reinforced anti-Semitic stereotypes and where hatred for Israel and Jews is rampant) is the need to maintain the flow of U.S. aid. If the aid goes, so too does the rationale for the cold peace.
Of course, neither Egypt’s military or even the Brotherhood is actually interested in reliving their country’s disastrous wars with Israel. But they do believe President Obama hasn’t the guts to stand up to them on any issue, including the role of Americans in promoting democracy. Just like the ayatollahs in Iran, they see this administration as being too weak to stand up to them. Though they neither wish to lose their annual billion-dollar bribe nor to have to revert to a state of war with Israel, they think Obama hasn’t the nerve to force them to back down.
Though it is a bit late in the day for him to be able to change his reputation, it is incumbent on Obama to prove the Brotherhood wrong. While neither the United States nor Israel wants an already shaky treaty to collapse altogether, it is the Egyptians who have the most to lose in this equation. The American demand must be backed up. If the Egyptians want any more U.S. taxpayer money, they must back off on their crackdown on those trying to promote democracy in that country.