America, the Middle East and the strange tale of Sam LaHood | Timothy Garton Ash

Washington is torn between supporting Arab democracy and its long-standing security priorities in the Middle East

Help me, dear reader, solve a little puzzle. While I was moving freely around Cairo last week, Sam LaHood, the son of the US transportation secretary, was confined to US diplomatic quarters. He had taken refuge there because he, along with 42 other foreign and Egyptian NGO activists, was to be put on trial by a still military-dominated Egyptian regime which receives more than $1.5bn in aid from the United States. LaHood had tried to leave the country in January, but been turned back.

The activists’ alleged offence is to have violated the proper registration procedures for an NGO, under a Mubarak-era law which makes it almost impossible to register an NGO properly. No one in their right mind believes this is anything but a pretext, or that the Egyptian judicial process is truly independent of a military and security apparatus which for decades has put itself beyond the law.

It took a pilgrimage to Field Marshal Mohamed Hossein Tantawi by Senator John McCain – who chairs the International Republican Institute for which LaHood Jr works – a military-to-military visit by the head of the US joint chiefs of staff, and much huffing and puffing by Hillary Clinton, to arrive at the following deal. Court proceedings have been put off until 26 April.

The local Egyptian activists, some of whom were paraded in a cage at the original court hearing, must stay to face the music, but there are hints that the charges will be downgraded to less serious ones. The foreign activists, not just the Americans but also Germans, Serbs, a Norwegian and a Palestinian, have been allowed to leave the country. On Thursday 1 March, while I boarded a regular BA flight from Cairo to London, they were flown to Cyprus on a specially chartered DC-3 cargo plane. According to a report on the American website, their in-flight movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. explains that "United States officials shelled out $5m-plus in bail money to spring LaHood and the other NGO workers". Some $300,000 of that was for young Sam, who told CNN that he can now go on a belated honeymoon with his wife of a few months. The CNN interviewer asked him: "Were you held hostage?'

“Well,” replied Sam, “that’s the analogy our attorney used – it was a de facto detention.”

Thus, to recap, the son of a US government minister was held hostage by a regime to which that same US government gives more than $1.5bn in aid.

His crime? Attempting to promote democracy. So why did Washington not react more strongly? Why was Uncle Sam standing up so gingerly for son Sam? Why was the Egyptian military tail-wagging – not to say, taunting – the American dog? And why did John McCain, that Indiana Jones of American politics, that scourge of dictators, the man who recently told a Chinese vice-foreign minister that “the Arab spring is coming to China”, behave like Puss in Boots when it came to dealing with Egypt’s still military-dominated regime?

Compare and contrast two McCain tweets. On Vladimir Putin, last December: "Dear Vlad, the #Arab Spring is coming to a neighbourhood near you." On his visit to Egypt last month: “Constructive meeting today w/Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of #Egypt’s military.” All guns blazing for the Arab spring except at the heart of the Arab spring.

So there's the little puzzle. Now, I'm no expert on the Middle East, but I have asked some people who are. Here are just a few elements of their complex answers. First, and obviously, McCain was publicly holding back, with visibly clenched lips, till he got their guys out. Second, and more fundamentally, when asked by CNN (while the hostage crisis was still going on) whether the US should cut its $1.5bn aid to Egypt, McCain said no – and reminded the interviewer of the terms of the Camp David accords of 1978. In other words, the security of the state of Israel, which the US regards as a vital moral and historical obligation – as I believe Europe also should – is held to require the continued collaboration of the Egyptian military.

Since the Camp David accords, and the subsequent Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Washington has relied on Egypt as a vital subcontractor in its own compact to keep Israel safe – a compact solemnly reaffirmed by President Barack Obama on Sunday, in his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). This Egyptian cornerstone of American policy – which also involves safe passage through the Suez canal and other American strategic interests – is seen as too important to risk at a time when Israel feels deeply unsettled by Islamists winning elections out of the Arab spring, as they have done in Egypt. And, more immediately, when Israel feels so directly threatened by an almost nuclear-capable Iran that Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is threatening to bomb Iran – in a US presidential election year.

Talking of US elections, the experts add one further detail. Much of the $1.3bn in military aid to Egypt (the rest of the grand total is more conventional economic assistance) comes straight back to American military suppliers, often with lucrative maintenance contracts. To factories like the General Dynamics one in Lima, Ohio, for example, where (wholly or partly US government-funded) Egyptian army orders for M1A1 Abrams tanks will help keep the production lines going despite Pentagon cutbacks at home. Risk those American jobs, in the crucial swing state of Ohio, in an election year? You must be joking.

I stress again that I'm no expert in this (mine)field. I merely report what some experts say. Whatever the exact mix of causes, the net result is that in Egypt the US has managed to tie its own hands behind its back when it comes to doing what Americans have done so well in countries I know better, and what Sam LaHood was trying to do in Cairo: promote the values and practices of liberal democracy.

In fact, one might almost argue that it's the real, down-home working of American democracy which hinders consistent, full-hearted American support for Arab democracy. If so, that is both tragic and short-sighted. The long-term interests of both Israel and the United States will not be served by being faint-hearted or ambivalent in supporting what is still one of the most hopeful developments of our time.

• This article will be open to comments from 9am Thursday morning (8 March), UK time

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