It may not be the equivalent of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 or the subsequent seizures of American citizens in Lebanon, but the Obama administration has a hostage crisis of sorts on its hands, and how it handles it will be of considerable importance not only to the president’s standing but the country’s.

This crisis has come about because the transitional regime in Egypt has decided to put on trial 19 Americans and two dozen others who are guilty of the apparent crime of trying to develop civil society and democracy. Seven of those defendants, who will go on trial on Friday, are actually in Egypt and unable to leave as long as the proceedings go on. Several have sought refuge at the U.S. embassy, like Cardinal Mindszenty, who lived in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years to escape Communist persecution. Those held hostage include Sam LaHood, son of a cabinet member, who is head of the International Republican Institute’s Cairo office.

It is hard to imagine a more direct challenge to American power than this brazen decision to try our citizens on trumped up charges. If any of these NGO workers wind up in prison, it will be a permanent blot not only on the Egyptian government but also on the Obama administration for letting it happen. Put simply, nations do not act like this if they fear American power. Clearly, we are not inducing enough respect even in a country such as Egypt which is dependent on more than $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid.

President Obama must intervene personally if necessary to resolve this crisis and get the authorities in Cairo to let our people go. Anything less would make us a laughingstock and a certain target of more affronts.

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