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By Barry Rubin

A reader asks: Why is Egypt keeping Americans who have been working with pro-democracy NGOs from leaving the country and threatening to put them on trial as criminals?

Here’s the answer:

1. The military rulers want to show they cannot be pushed around by the United States. This is, of course, also a big way to muster popularity within Egypt. The resentment of foreign intervention is very high and as I pointed out in a recent article, even a U.S. Navy anti-disease program is being portrayed by a liberal party as a covert operation to spread disease, murder Egyptian children, and weaken Egypt so Israel can defeat it.

2. The armed forces want to weaken the “moderate” parties by blocking foreign aid to them. These forces are the junta’s main critics and are organizing demonstrations against the government.

3. Ironically, the moderates are demanding the military turn over power to the Islamists even faster! Yet there is no reason to believe that the armed forces will not give up power after the presidential elections in June. There have already been a lot of ideas for a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. For example, a special parliamentary committee could be created to manage the military budget on terms satisfactory to the generals. While the Brotherhood has demanded the government’s resignation, this seems more like a way of building leverage than a serious goal. In just five months there will be a new president and the junta will dissolve.

4. The Islamists, who did get almost 75 percent of the vote in the election, support this tough strategy in order to weaken their moderate rivals and also becaue they are anti-American and xenophobic. This is only the beginning of the anti-American populism/nationalism/Islamism we are going to be seeing in Egypt from now on.

What’s amazing is that nobody is pointing out that if an Egyptian government is willing to risk U.S. aid and have a confrontation on this small issue, what are they going to do regarding big issues!? What happens when the Egyptian government moves toward Islamism or helps Hamas fight Israel on some level? We have been told that fear of losing U.S. aid will constrain Egypt. But we are now seeing that this simply isn’t true.

Note also that the Obama administration’s bluff is already being called. If trials go forward — and some compromise might be found to save face for both sides — will the Obama administration cut off aid or is it bluffing and will back down? I’ll bet on the latter, and that will send a real message to every radical in the region.

Note, too, the U.S. government has just backed down on past warnings that it will cut aid if the PA and Hamas form a coalition government. Of course, it clings to the hope that the new coalition will break down (which might happen) and state that there is no formal coalition yet or that Hamas might accept Israel’s right to exist and stop violence (fat chance!).

The U.S.-Egypt confrontation might be avoided by some compromise. The Obama administration will conclude that it “won” while everyone in the leaderships of Arab countries, Iran, and Turkey will conclude that America can be pushed around with impunity.

The Obama administration seems to be on the road to proving beyond any doubt that it is a paper tiger. And the consequences will be felt in a dozen countries, promoting more dissing of America and new crises.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com        

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