Nothing better illustrates America's sliding status in today's Arab world than Egypt's decision to try 16 Americans who work for pro-democracy groups there.
On the surface, the strange story of this "criminal" case looks far less important than the Syrian government's repression of its people. But this crisis has the potential to wreck U.S. relations with Egypt, a country that is still considered a key ally. And these charges graphically illustrate the decline of U.S. leverage in the new Middle East.
Here are the facts: On Monday, Egypt's military-led government brought charges against the Americans and 24 others - including 14 Egyptians, other Arabs, Germans, and Serbs. Their crime: They worked in Cairo for American and local organizations that promote democracy and receive U.S. funding.
Most of the Americans are no longer in the country. Three - including Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood - have taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
However, this case involves far more than the fate of a few Americans. It demonstrates the Egyptian military's fear of democracy at home. And it forecasts the rocky road ahead for the Egyptian relationship with the United States.
Two of the four U.S. organizations whose employees were charged were the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). They are affiliated with the Democratic and Republican Parties, and receive congressional funding to teach the nuts and bolts of political campaigns to Egyptians from any party; this includes training on how to monitor elections and teach voter awareness. Yet these groups were accused of illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest.
The draconian law under which they were charged dates back to the Mubarak era, and requires all nongovernmental organizations to register with the government. But the law made such registration virtually impossible. So, gutsy Egyptian organizations such as the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession had to operate in the shadows. (This is one of the local groups just charged - by a judiciary still under the military's thumb.)
Once the Tahrir Square revolution toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian activists expected this law to be rescinded. So did the NDI and the IRI, which kept the Egyptian government informed of all their activities; they were even accredited by the Egyptian government to send delegations to observe parliamentary elections last year.
However, the law was not repealed. Nor did it become easier for local pro-democracy NGOs to raise funds in Egypt. Liberal businessmen who might have been expected to fund such groups after the revolution were still too afraid.
And now - confronted with ongoing demonstrations - Egypt's powerful generals have convinced themselves that the unrest is being organized and funded by a "foreign hand."
"What the military is doing is exactly a continuation of what Mubarak did," says the Carnegie Endowment's Egypt expert, Marina Ottoway. "The military is not a democratic institution. Egypt has never allowed NGOs to function."
The NGO issue, while important, didn't have to become the game-changer in U.S.-Egyptian relations. However, by choosing to blame America for funding unrest, the generals have ruled out business as usual. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, is traveling to Egypt to meet the generals. Many in Congress are demanding a cut in the annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, along with $250 million in economic aid.
What's astonishing is that the generals seem so unconcerned about provoking Washington, even though Egypt's economy is in the tank and it needs U.S. support to get international loans.
No doubt Egypt's military feels "entitled" to U.S. aid, which it regards as payment for its adherence to the peace treaty with Israel. It knows U.S. officials want Egypt to maintain that treaty, and see its military as a bulwark against Islamists who won Egyptian elections.
The $1.3 billion in aid looks like the only leverage that Washington still retains in Cairo. Says Ottoway, "If we cut off aid we are cutting off our nose to spite our face."
Yet events in Egypt remind us our leverage is waning, as Egypt's military looks to play the nationalist card and please its public. A recent Gallup poll showed 71 percent of Egyptians oppose U.S. economic aid, and 74 percent oppose direct U.S. aid to civil-society groups. Egypt's Islamists oppose that aid, too.
I hope, for Egypt's sake, that behind-the-scenes talks persuade its generals to back off these political trials, let the Americans leave, and focus on the country's real problems. If they persist - it makes one wonder how much influence America retains in Cairo, and what our aid still buys us. And that is a very sobering thought.