Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times is sad that the transitional government in Egypt is putting 16 American citizens on trial for promoting democracy in Egypt. David Ignatius of the Washington Post is worried that the nascent Muslim Brotherhood might stick to its principles in governing Egypt and fail to embrace moderation.
I am neither sad nor worried about the direction of the government in Egypt, which threw off the Mubarak dictatorship last year and now seems to be sliding toward an Islamist regime. Whatever happens in Egypt will happen, and the United States government must deal with it. I am, however, furious about the 16 Americans currently held hostage in Cairo, and mystified by the casual reaction to this episode in the United States.
Of course, I assume that back channel negotiations are underway, and that the Obama administration is attempting to persuade the Egyptians—I am speaking diplomatically here—that it would not be in their interest to hold innocent Americans hostage, or subject them to a kangaroo trial and imprisonment (or worse) on trumped-up charges. In which case the relative public silence of the U.S. government is comprehensible.
Or maybe not. To begin with, the accused Americans had been accredited under the repressive Mubarak regime, and there is no evidence that they were doing anything other than what comparable NGOs do in similar circumstances: Promote democracy within the laws and customs of host countries. Citing Egyptian claims that the Americans were agents of the CIA and/or Israel, Friedman concludes that this episode represents a last gasp of the Mubarak regime and that, sooner or later, wiser heads will prevail. I am not so sure. It could just as easily be seen as a precursor of things to come; and based on what is known of public opinion in Egypt, has enhanced, not reduced, the popularity of the transitional government.
During the Falklands War (1982) a senior British officer commented that Great Britain had invested billions of pounds in defense since 1945, and that it would all appear to have been wasted if they couldn't "knock the skin off a rice pudding." Something of the same logic obtains here since this is a crisis of elementary dimensions. The "transitional government" in Cairo cannot fail to be impressed by the weak, importunate posture of the United States government. Sixteen innocent American citizens -- including the son of a cabinet secretary, for God's sake -- are being held hostage by the junta in a country that not only enjoys diplomatic relations with the United States but has been the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in assistance in recent decades.
As Robert Dole once said, where's the outrage?