CAIRO — Veteran diplomat Anne Patterson, the new U.S. ambassador to Egypt, presented her credentials Wednesday to the country's ruling military council — at the generals' appointed time of 15:24 — and officially became the steward of what's quickly becoming one of the United States' most complicated international relationships.
Even the ceremony hinted at the frostier relations that have developed between the countries since the fall in February of President Hosni Mubarak, who for 30 years was one of America's most reliable allies.
There was little fanfare. The state news agency acknowledged Patterson toward the bottom of a list of 10 new envoys who also presented credentials at the ceremony. In contrast, Patterson's predecessor, Margaret Scobey, made her presentation in 2008 to Mubarak at a special ceremony at the presidential palace.
This time, the envoy from the United States, which gives Egypt nearly $1.5 billion a year in military and other aid, was listed between envoys from Sudan and San Marino.
"Ambassador Patterson told Field Marshal (Mohamed Hussein) Tantawi that the United States fully supports Egypt's transition to democracy and that she will work to strengthen the Egypt-U.S. partnership," the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said in a two-sentence statement on the event. Patterson was unavailable for comment.
How the United States supports Egypt's transition to democracy is exactly what worries Tantawi and his underlings on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has run Egypt by decree since Mubarak's fall.
The generals, reportedly still miffed at Washington for giving up on Mubarak during the revolt, are furious with U.S. efforts to fund pro-democracy groups in Egypt by circumventing government channels. Scathing stories about American interference in Egypt crop up regularly in local papers, fueling xenophobia and scaring off fledgling nonprofits that otherwise would be receptive to American aid.
The United States hasn't fared any better with the millions of anti-Mubarak protesters who are now coalescing into political parties in preparation for parliamentary elections in November. During the 18-day uprising that preceded Mubarak's resignation, chants against America were common, with young Egyptians pointing angrily to the "Made in USA" stamps on the tear-gas canisters that Mubarak's forces fired at them.
A Gallup poll released earlier this year found that 75 percent of Egyptians oppose American aid to political groups and that two-thirds think the U.S. isn't serious about encouraging democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.
Islamists from the influential Muslim Brotherhood recall the U.S. silence when Mubarak and his regime locked them up en masse and persecuted them for decades. Human rights groups remember that Egypt was a top destination for the Bush administration's practice of extraordinary rendition, the outsourcing of torture for terrorism suspects. Pro-democracy advocates say the United States rarely used its considerable leverage with the old regime to push through promised reforms.
As a result, even the new political class is turning a cold shoulder to American offers of funding for civil society as well as training and monitors for the coming elections. In June, the military council rejected a proposed budget from its civilian ministers because of its dependence on aid from the United States and other foreign donors.
Patterson, Egyptian political observers said, will have to work transparently and diligently to overcome that hostility, keeping an eye on mutual long-term goals such as a moderate Middle East and measurable progress on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States who's the dean of the school of public affairs at the American University in Cairo, acknowledged the current thorniness but predicted that the long-term relationship would remain sound. For now, he said, Patterson and her superiors in Washington must recognize that the military council and whatever elected government succeeds it will be accountable to the public in a way that was unfathomable in Mubarak's day.
"The tensions in recent weeks have been essentially about the U.S. government funding NGOs without going through the Egyptian government," Fahmy said. He added, "I don't think there's going to be a crisis, but the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the Egyptian government will demand a respect for Egyptian law."
Patterson is accustomed to difficult political situations. In her previous posting as the ambassador to Pakistan, she navigated a tumultuous time that included contentious elections, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination, a judicial crisis and the rise of militant groups.
"She was here at a spectacularly fluid time in Pakistan's history," said Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani journalist who wrote extensively about Patterson for Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English-language daily newspaper.
In Pakistan, Almeida said, Patterson was an important behind-the-scenes figure in the move from the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf to a democratically elected government, judging from the several confidential cables she sent to Washington that WikiLeaks later published.
Patterson's tour in Pakistan could prove valuable as she attempts to smooth relations and guard American interests in the similarly dynamic Egyptian political landscape.
"She was a tough cookie. She understood nuances and complexities of Pakistan's labyrinthine politics, especially regarding the military," Almeida said. "In Pakistan, the joke is to call the American ambassador the viceroy, going back to colonial times. In many ways, Anne Patterson was one of those ambassadors who had input that was key in affecting how the country was managed."
(McClatchy special correspondent Saeed Shah contributed to this article from Islamabad.)
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