A week before Valentine’s Day, the Egyptian government’s brazen antagonism of American-funded NGOs has proven the old adage: “You can’t buy love,” not even with the 1.3 billion in annual military aid that the United States has lavished on its military.

As Steven Cooke aptly described what he predicts will be an unfriendly “breakup” between the United States and Egypt, “It seems that with the trial of 19 Americans and 16 Egyptians and 8 others affiliated with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the Egyptians are serving divorce papers.”  And on February 7, the Egyptian government made clear that it plans to bring this quarrel to court:  Egyptian judges overseeing the investigation announced that the 19 Americans indicted over the weekend will be ordered to stand trial on criminal charges of violating licensing and foreign funding regulations, which could carry a penalty of up to five years in prison. 

With the sharp escalation of hostilities in recent days – Egypt has vowed “to expose foreign schemes that threaten the stability of the homeland” while the U.S. warns that the investigation could jeopardize future military aid – what started as a war of words is quickly morphing into a vindictive legal battle that may do irreparable damage to the bilateral relationship.  As Washington and Cairo ramp up their respective threats, the two sides are headed for mutually assured disenchantment:  Egypt’s leaders – apparently deluded by their own entitlement complex and inflated sense of strategic importance – will face a rude awakening when they discover that threatened military aid cuts were not an empty bluff, and the United States is learning the hard way that a more democratic and independent Egypt won’t hesitate to bite the hand that feeds it.

In the new spending bill approved in December, Congress imposed new restrictions on future aid to the Egyptian military, now contingent on the government’s compliance with three criteria: 1) progress toward a transfer of power to civilian leaders; 2) protecting human rights and basic freedoms; and 3) upholding the peace treaty with Israel. Egypt’s military aid budget will be in jeopardy unless the State Department can certify its adherence to all three conditions.  But Egypt’s leaders seem to be banking on the flimsy assumption that the strategic value of their security cooperation with the U.S. and Israel gives them a carte blanche for bad behavior without consequences. Despite warning from Congress and the White House to the contrary, Egyptian officials are convinced that the military aid package is a sacrosanct entitlement that can’t be taken back, and they insist that the US-Egypt relationship is still on solid ground "despite some differences."

Meanwhile, the fact that the current investigation is being driven by Egypt’s judiciary has allowed the interim government to claim that it neither condones the probe nor has the authority to stop it. Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr said on February 5, "We are doing our best to contain this but … we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation."  But despite their best efforts to deflect blame for the crackdown onto Egypt’s stubbornly independent judiciary, Egyptian officials are clearly reveling in the misfortune of American-funded NGOs. Minister Fayza Aboul Naga, a remnant of Hosni Mubarak’s former government and veteran antagonist of civil society groups, is widely recognized as the “mastermind” behind the probe and warned the United States not to underestimate the  “government’s seriousness about discovering some of these groups’ plans to destabilize Egypt.”  If Naga continues to survive successive cabinet reshuffles – as she has been doing for the post ten years – her ironically named Ministry of International Cooperation will continue to serve as a bastion of belligerence and bane of U.S. policy in Egypt. 

In her efforts to justify the harassment of foreign-funded NGOs, Naga will likely claim that the current probe is consistent with Egyptian public opinion and opposition to American intervention in domestic affairs. New polling data released by Gallup this week could provide fodder for this argument: According to the survey, “74 percent of Egyptians oppose the US sending direct aid to Egyptian civil society groups and 71 percent oppose the idea of American aid to Egypt altogether.”

In a climate that is becoming increasingly toxic to international assistance of any kind, opposition to American funding for civil society groups could jeopardize other streams of international assistance including the loans and budgetary support that Egypt’s ailing economy desperately needs.

Mara Revkin is the assistant director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource.  She can be reached at mrevkin@acus.org.

Photo Credit: al-Ahram