(CNSNews.com) – U.S. lawmakers examining the troubled relationship with Egypt Wednesday heard experts debate the relative culpability of the military and holdovers from the Mubarak regime, but were also advised not to ignore the role of the rising Muslim Brotherhood in the dispute.
Relations between Washington and Cairo are facing their worst crisis in decades over the harassment and intended prosecution of Americans and others attached to democracy-promoting non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of whom have been banned from leaving the country.
“The Brotherhood has overwhelmingly supported the crackdown on the NGOs,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Eric Trager told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia.
The Obama administration and members of Congress have warned that military and economic aid worth some $1.5 billion a year could be at risk unless the situation is resolved satisfactorily.
A top Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leader was quoted in Egyptian media Wednesday saying Egypt should reject “humiliating” U.S. aid, likening it to “a chain that restricts our freedom.”
At the hearing on Capitol Hill, experts discussed the extent to which the Egyptian military and International Cooperation Minister Faiza Abul Naga, who served in the Mubarak regime, were responsible for the crackdown, and how the U.S. should respond.
Abul Naga’s prominent role was underscored by reports in state-run Egyptian media this week, quoting her as accusing the U.S. of using NGOs in a bid to hijack the Egyptian transition, since the prospect of an economically-strong, modern, democratic Egypt was seen as a threat to “American and also Israeli interests.”
In response, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement denying that the U.S. was trying to prevent Egypt from “achieving the goals of the revolution,” and saying that it “strongly supports Egypt’s transition towards democracy.”
Tamara Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs testifying before the panel in her personal capacity, attributed the dispute to “desperate attempts of this transitional government to retain the upper hand in Egypt’s newly dynamic domestic politics.”
“This is an effort to label human rights work itself as an illegitimate foreign agenda, alien and hostile to Egypt,” she said in written testimony. “And, of course, the military and its appointed government also benefit politically from portraying themselves as defending the sovereignty of Egypt against foreign intervention.”
Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Kagan stressed the importance of sending a tough message to the military council, which he said clearly does not believe that U.S. aid is at risk.
“They think that our relationship with them is so vital that they can do this and at the end of the day we still won’t cut off the aid – and it’s that mentality that I’m worried about, going forward with in the relationship.”
Kagan played down the role of the MB, which won 47 percent of seats in the new parliament, and the even more radical Salafist Nour party, which garnered just under 25 percent.
“It was not the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists [driving the dispute],” he said. “It was this minister [Abul Naga], I think backed by the military.”
But Trager, while blaming the military for the crisis, drew attention to the MB’s stance on the matter.
“The Brotherhood has overwhelmingly supported the crackdown on the NGOs and intends to appoint one of its senior political officials as minister of international cooperation, so that it can monitor future contributions to pro-democratic NGOs,” he told the hearing.
“In its most recent statement issued earlier today, the Brotherhood said that American funds have been used ‘for the demolition of Egypt and the destruction of society,’” he added.
‘Reject humiliating US aid’
Noting that the MB’s biggest political challenge came not from liberal, non-Islamist parties but from the Salafists, Trager predicted that the Brotherhood will only grow less moderate in the future.
“Egyptian domestic politics will thus be a competitive theocracy between two competing Islamist visions, that of the Muslim Brotherhood and that of the puritanical Salafists,” he said.
He told the panel Congress should call for military aid to be suspended, until at the very least the American NGO staffers were allowed to leave Egypt.
Congress should also see that future aid is conditioned on the achievement of U.S. interests, including equal rights for religious minorities, Egyptian cooperation in combating violent extremism, and its commitment to abide by the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, Trager added.
A senior Brotherhood official who is now a top lawmaker warned this week that any cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt could lead to changes to the terms of the 33 year-old peace treaty with Israel.
On Wednesday, the Brotherhood’s number two overall leader, Rashad al-Bayoumi, published an article urged Egyptians to reject “humiliating” U.S. aid, saying it was “like a chain that restricts our freedom.” A similar call came days earlier from a prominent Salafist preacher, Mohamed Hassan.
Bayoumi also accused U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson of inciting “sedition” in Egypt, replicating the “crimes” she committed in her previous post as ambassador to Pakistan (2007-2010).
Bayoumi condemned foreign-funded NGOs and calls for a nationwide strike, calling them an “American-Zionist attempt to thwart the march of freedom and progress in the Arab world.”
Bayoumi’s words appeared in the state-run Al-Ahram and the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, which said the article had been posted on the MB’s Web site.
(The article could not be found on the Brotherhood’s English-language site. The Middle East Media Research Institute, which translates Arabic media, has noted that the MB uses its Arabic-language site, as opposed to its English one, to carry more controversial articles, such as anti-Israel and jihad-extolling material.)
A recent Gallup poll, released last week but conducted before the NGO dispute erupted, found that 71 percent of Egyptians oppose U.S. aid.
“Let’s get this straight,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who chaired Wednesday’s hearing. “We’ve got this trillion-plus deficit each year and we’re sending money over there that 70 percent of the Egyptians don’t want, right?”
In its fiscal year 2013 budget request this week, the State Department asked for $770 million for a new fund to promote reforms in Egypt and 10 other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The request also included $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt and $250 million in economic assistance.