Beyond Guns and Butter: A U.S.-Egyptian Relationship for a Democratic Era

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.


A year after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, U.S.-Egypt relations are at an all-time low. Not, as many expected, because of the rise of Islamist parties, but because America’s longtime allies in the Egyptian military have whipped up anti-American sentiment at a feverish pace. It may have started as a political ploy, a way to build support on the street and highlight the army’s nationalist credentials, but the generals soon lost control. In January, the Egyptian government announced that sixteen Americans—including the son of a top U.S. official— would be put on trial, facing up to five years in prison. Their apparent crime was working for American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House—that offered support, funding, and election monitoring for Egypt’s uneven transition.

On March 1, the Egyptian government lifted the travel ban on seven Americans who were still in Egypt, allowing them to leave the country. A major diplomatic breach was avoided, giving the impression that the crisis had been resolved. This appears to be the interpretation of the Obama administration, which waived congressional conditions on military aid, citing the importance of maintaining a “strategic partnership” with Egypt.2 However, the charges against the Americans remain, and there is no sign that the American NGOs in question will be able to reopen anytime soon. More importantly, the vast majority of affected NGOs—which are Egyptian rather than American—still find themselves on trial and under attack.

The NGO episode, however worrying it is on its own, reflects something larger and more troubling: the slow descent from the national unity of the revolution to a fog of paranoia, distrust, and conspiracy theorizing. Who is with the revolution, and who isn’t? The roots of the problem lie in the uncertainly inherent in Egypt’s muddled transition. Unlike in Tunisia, where the Higher Committee for the Achievement of Revolutionary Objectives (HCARO)—accepted as legitimate by all of the country’s main political forces—was responsible for managing the transition, Egypt has featured various competing actors claiming their own distinct sources of power. The struggle for legitimacy between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and the protest movement has created a fragmented political scene. Everyone wants to lead the transition, but no one wants to take full responsibility for the results.