Many Americans were optimistic when the "Arab Spring" reached Egypt last year, toppling the decades-long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Numerous volunteers even flocked to the country as part of a group of pro-democracy, non-governmental agencies hoping to advise the Egyptians on how to set up a pluralistic and representative republic.
The optimism now appears to have been misplaced.
Ignoring a U.S. threat to cut off aid, the Egyptian government -- a supposedly kinder, gentler military junta than the last one -- has arrested and now threatens to put on trial 19 Americans and 24 other employees of nonprofit groups on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country.
In response, U.S. officials said Tuesday that Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would travel to Egypt to press for the criminal charges against at least 16 Americans to be dropped.
Among the American defendants is Sam LaHood, the Egypt program director for the International Republican Institute and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Egyptian state media's limited coverage of the dispute is couched in calls for national sovereignty.
Is Egypt doomed to fall back into blindered, theocratic repression?
The ruling generals who took power after the uprising, led by a man who was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, have tried to deflect criticism by claiming "foreign hands" are behind protests against their rule. Conspiracies are now seen in nearly every move by a foreign nation. Egypt has plunged into a new cycle of violence, with 12 killed in four days of clashes, sparked by anger at the authorities' inability to prevent a soccer riot that left 74 dead.
It's a depressing prospect, but surely damage control is now the proper course. Get the Americans out. Cut off U.S. aid. Tell the Egyptians they're welcome back into the community of nations when tourists, diplomats -- and yes, even naive young people hoping to pass out Bibles and copies of "The Rights of Man" -- can again travel there safely.