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Egypt Military Council Crackdown Baffles Experts

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In this file photo, Sam LaHood, an American non-governmental official who has was recently barred from leaving Egypt, watches as his father, Ray LaHood, is sworn in as secretary of transportation.
In this file photo, Sam LaHood, an American non-governmental official who has was recently barred from leaving Egypt, watches as his father, Ray LaHood, is sworn in as secretary of transportation.

WASHINGTON -- A recent crackdown on American pro-democracy organizations in Egypt has observers of the country's military regime shaking their heads over possible motivations.

The State Department on Monday confirmed reports that "a handful" of U.S. citizens from non-governmental organizations had taken refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo, fearing prosecution or arrest.

The precaution comes after a severe escalation in tensions last week, when the country director for one of the non-governmental organizations, Sam LaHood of the International Republican Institute, was prevented from leaving Egypt at the Cairo airport. LaHood is the son of Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation.

"I'm not sure that anything quite explains what's going on," said Les Campbell, the Middle East and North Africa regional director at another affected non-governmental organization, the National Democratic Institute. "I honestly don't know. I can't think of a logical reason for any of it."

Egypt experts have been keeping a close eye on the country's ruling military regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak last February.

The SCAF has a long history of close relations with the U.S., which provides some $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt every year, something the military is not likely to intentionally jeopardize.

Relations between the U.S. and the Egyptian military regime took a turn for the worse in late-December, when heavily armed security forces stormed the offices of National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and a third American non-governmental organization, Freedom House -- along with several international and Egyptian ones -- under the pretense of investigating whether the groups were registered legally.

Egyptian officials have repeatedly said the ongoing unrest in Cairo is the result of foreign meddling, and have accused American non-governmental organizations in particular of failing to follow proper protocols. The organizations adamantly deny the charge.

Even after the raids, there were some who thought they could divine a certain twisted logic behind the actions -- a domestic political agenda, perhaps, or an attempt to deflect some of the pressure resulting from the SCAF's slow handover of the government to civilian control.

In an essay written in January, Ahmed Morsy, a researcher on Egypt's government at the University of St. Andrews, listed several reasons why SCAF may have benefited from the crackdown, including reminding Americans that "we have the power."

The raids drew an unusually stern response from the American government -- including direct condemnation from President Barack Obama, who mentioned his concerns in a phone call with the Egyptian military leader, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

After a meeting with top Egyptian officials in early January, Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department's top Middle East officer, told reporters he "was encouraged by the process for bringing these non-governmental organizations into proper registration in Egypt."

"I thought SCAF was playing the same game Mubarak did before to push back the U.S.," Morsy told HuffPost on Monday. "However, with the recent escalation and rhetoric, I think one should have second thoughts."

Ashraf Khalil, a Cairo-based journalist who recently published the book "Liberation Square," on the past year's revolution in Egypt, said Egypt's actions are "hard to understand."

"I can understand that maybe they didn't quite get how big of a deal the raids would be in America, especially in Washington decision-making circles," said Khalil. "They probably viewed this as a local issue -- and locally it's not that big of a deal. But the point when I stopped understanding any of their motivations is when they banned people from leaving the country. And Sam LaHood? Even if you don't get the American view, from a Middle Eastern politics perspective, you know that you don't mess with the son of a minister."

A former Egyptian military officer contacted by The Huffington Post on Monday offered something of an official perspective, claiming that the "unregistered" non-governmental organizations represented a critical threat to the rule of law in the post-Mubarak era. He said the military was cognizant of the potential damage to its ties with the U.S.

"You think Egypt is going to destroy its relationship with the United States because of one or two or five organizations?" he asked. "Of course not. We are not that stupid. But you have to do something about a situation that has become very destructive in a critical situation -- you can't allow them to say we are above your laws. You wouldn't allow it in the states."

He added, "In my personal opinion, this is going to end with no problem. No one will be accused of anything, no one will be imprisoned. But you have to stop this."

Gregory Aftandilian, a senior fellow on the Middle East for the Center for National Policy and former State Department official, suggested that the $1.3 billion in military aid might not be as important as many Americans assume.

"Certainly that's a sizable chunk of their defense budget, but the sky won't fall down if it's cut off," Aftandilian said.

Aftandilian suggested a more intangible motive: an Egyptian "knee-jerk nationalism."

"The Egyptians are very nationalistic, and they take a lot of pride in the fact that they're an ancient civilizations, that people come and go and they're always there," Aftandilian said. "So there's probably a sense that, 'We're in charge here and even though we value our American friendship, they're not going to dictate to us.'"

As for what, definitively, is motivating the SCAF?

"That's the big unknown," Aftandilian said.

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