CAIRO — The scenario is familiar to Egyptian political activists: Authorities harass pro-democracy groups, raid their offices, ban employees from travel and threaten criminal charges to smear them as foreign agents.
Typically, the revolutionary set in Cairo would spring to the groups' defenses, with Twitter campaigns and rallies. However, there's been no such public response in the current drama involving American democracy-building groups, whose presence has long made a cross-section of Egyptians uncomfortable.
The American groups' predicament has exposed the strain in U.S.-Egyptian relations since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year, with U.S. officials privately conceding that it's the most serious rupture in the bilateral relationship in three decades. While some U.S. officials expressed confusion at the actions of Egypt's ruling military generals — counterparts they once viewed as reliable allies — analysts see a calculated move to boost the military's credibility with the Egyptian public.
At least six Americans, including the son of a senior Obama administration official, are banned from leaving Egypt, and some of them have sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy pending the Egyptian government's investigation of their organizations' funding. Their offices were among those sealed Dec. 29 after a string of raids on Egyptian and Western human rights and democracy advocates.
After Islamists won a majority of parliamentary seats in the first polls since the revolt, Egypt's military council thought that cracking down on foreign organizations would win public approval, analysts said. The government blames such "foreign hands" for the country's instability, Islamists don't like their promotion of secular democracy, many leftists deride them as modern-day colonialists and ordinary Egyptians have absorbed years of state TV programming that portrayed pro-democracy activists as agents of the United States and Israel.
The Egyptian generals are betting that their country's strategic importance will prevent any real break in relations with the United States.
"The military is thinking, 'It's a low-risk move,' " said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who's written extensively on the Egyptian military. "It will garner support for itself and isolate its enemies."
However, the generals' gamble could backfire, Springborg added, especially with so much uproar over the matter in Washington.
The Egyptian government upped the ante again Tuesday, with the justice minister returning a personal request from U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson asking him to remove the travel ban, the Reuters news agency reported. The new speaker of Parliament, Muslim Brotherhood veteran Mohamed Saad el Katatni, chimed in about the Patterson letter, calling it "interference by the American Embassy that we do not accept," according to Reuters.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was "the justice minister's prerogative to send this letter back. But we're going to continue to engage on this."
Prosecutors are considering charges against the groups' leaders, according to Egyptian news reports. Such action presumably would include the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sam LaHood, the Egypt program director for the International Republican Institute, couldn't be reached for comment.
Outraged lawmakers in Washington have renewed calls to cut the $1.3 billion U.S. military aid package Egypt receives each year. In December, Congress voted for a spending package that makes the aid to Egypt conditional upon the country upholding its peace treaty with Israel and transitioning to civilian rule.
To many pro-revolution Egyptians, the prospect of ending military aid from the U.S. is good news: They say American assistance was a bulwark of Mubarak's authoritarian regime for three decades.
American politicians are incensed that Egypt would risk its military funding to crack down on nongovernmental organizations even as it seeks international help to bail out its ruined economy. Analysts said the Obama administration's main leverage in resolving the crisis is its influence with Western and Arab nations that are sought-after potential donors.
"The Egyptian government cannot continue to attack NGOs and expect to get the kind of support it needs to rebuild Egypt's economy," Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned in a statement.
"The government is playing a dangerous game that not only threatens the very NGOs who are helping to rebuild Egyptian society, but also risks doing major damage to our bilateral relationship."
While state media, typically the generals' mouthpiece, make little mention of the U.S. anger over the investigation, there are signs that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is taking the matter seriously.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the council, has spoken by telephone with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta twice since the groups' offices were raided, including over the weekend. President Barack Obama spoke to Tantawi by phone in January.
The Egyptian military sent an officers' delegation to the United States this week for talks with senior American military and political figures in Tampa, Fla., and Washington. State Department officials said the trip had been scheduled before the diplomatic flap, but they added that the issue was sure to arise in every meeting.
At the Pentagon, officials said they hoped that the Egyptian generals were responding to domestic pressure and not edging away from the United States. Panetta warned Tantawi over the weekend that the military's actions had caught the attention of Congress, a senior military official told McClatchy, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to be more candid. Panetta received no assurances from Tantawi, the official said, but Tantawi told Panetta that he understood Washington's concerns.
"We know they are sensitive to perceived outside influence," the official said. But he said the U.S. military wasn't concerned about a faltering relationship because it was unclear which Egyptian institution could replace the entrenched military: "Whom would they be pivoting toward?"
Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he wasn't convinced that the military had acted on its own, but rather in response to civilian pressure and the public's long-standing resentment of foreign intervention.
But its response is exposing the weaknesses of the military leadership, demonstrating "that the military is having problems working domestic politics and international relations," Alterman said.
Despite an initial show of solidarity from some Egyptian activists, the targeted Americans were easy marks in Egypt's volatile political climate. Included in the raids were the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute, groups that receive U.S. government funding and had been assisting Egyptian political parties in their recent election campaigns.
"The way society looks at us is expected, because their awareness is shaped through a media mechanism formed by the regime," said Nasser Amin, whose nonprofit association devoted to judicial independence was among those raided along with the American groups on suspicion of illegally receiving foreign funds.
Amin spent seven hours this week in interrogations related to the case, he said, and the court ordered him to produce records of his group's activities and finances stretching back 15 years. He said the generals were seeking revenge against groups they thought had helped to galvanize the uprising that upset the military-backed status quo.
But a negative view of foreign-backed NGOs persists even among liberal and revolutionary factions that ostensibly call for the same goals: human rights, democracy and government transparency.
Activists and politicians who've dealt with some of the targeted groups said they were uneasy about what they felt were attempts to impose Western sensibilities on one of the poorest, most religious countries in the Arab world.
"Many of our own members quit and went to work with them, simple men who suddenly showed up in a Mercedes, smoking cigars, living in villas," said Refaat el Said, the chairman of the leftist Tagammu Party. "It's a corruption of the elite of society."
(Youssef reported from Washington. Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and special correspondent Omnia Al Desoukie in Cairo contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Hannah Allam on Twitter
McClatchy Newspapers 2012