Egypt's refusal to allow several American citizens to leave the country has heightened tensions between the traditional allies and has some people wondering if it heralds a more fraught, post-revolution relationship. But others in Egypt believe it may be little more than the military leaders posturing for a domestic audience.
Several Americans took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo after being barred from leaving Egypt, raising the stakes in a confrontation concerning U.S.-backed democracy organizations and prompting questions about the future of $1.3 billion in U.S. aid.
It is an unusual diplomatic step, indicating the Americans felt they were in danger, while Egyptian media speculated that those at the embassy were trying to evade possible prosecution.
Egyptian authorities raided several foreign-backed pro-democracy groups in December, accusing them of working illegally and interfering with domestic affairs. The U.S. complained and Egypt promised to relent. But last week the local director of one such group, Sam Lahood of the International Republican Institute - the son of a U.S. Cabinet member - was among several Americans turned back at the airport.
Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has been heavily criticized for its continued crackdown on pro-democracy activists, with thousands of its domestic critics being sent before military tribunals and jailed in harsh conditions.
But American University in Cairo political sociologist, Said Sadek, thinks the case of those at the embassy is not so dire.
"The matter is being dramatized, but I don't think there is any danger. We have not seen anything bad happening to Americans or foreigners in Egypt when they are in government custody. You had, a few months ago, some American students arrested and accused that they were a part of a demonstration and all that happened is that they left the country. There was no torture. There was no violence against them. There was nothing," said Sadek.
A White House spokesman said Monday that the United States is not aware of any danger. But it is exactly Egypt's continuation of a crackdown on domestic critics, including allegations of abuse in custody, that has put Washington in a bind.
The Obama administration, late in supporting the uprising last year, has since reached out to Egypt's new players, including the SCAF and ascendant Islamist groups, as it tries to remain relevant to the country's new political reality.
That includes renewing America's annual $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt. Some U.S. lawmakers have already called for the amount to be slashed because of the raids. The latest developments threaten to make matters worse.
AUC's Sadek thinks otherwise.
"Remember, the United States needs the military whom they invested in for many decades," he said. "They also have open relationships with the political powers in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and they know that those two powers are very important in this relationship. I don't think this is going to be affected by the arrest of, detention or prevention of three Americans from leaving the country for a short period of time until the matter is cleared by the prosecutor."
Sadek argues that Egyptian officials are also keen on keeping relations intact as they struggle with the immediate problems of rebuilding the nation post-revolution. A delegation of Egyptian officials is in the United States this week in an apparent bid to smooth things over.
The AUC professor says the move against U.S.-backed democracy groups is aimed more at a local audience.
"It can be used for domestic situation to show that Egypt is still strong and say 'no' to the United States, especially after the criticism that some Americans raised against the behavior of the SCAF, human rights organizations condemning the transitional period and the mismanagement from the military," said Sadek.
Sadek adds that the actions can be considered "just a game."