Until now, the Obama administration has played it safe when it comes to the virtually sacrosanct $1.3 billion annual aid package with Egypt, despite the years of turbulence which wracked the country since Hosni Mubarak fell in 2011.
But the administration is changing course, announcing Wednesday it will suspend high-priority items—including Abrams tanks, Apache helicopters, Harpoon missiles, and F-16 fighter jets—though it will keep aid for counterterrorism operations and border security.
What this will prove now, months after the military takeover and years after the crackdown on democratic civil society began, is unclear—and that's not a good thing if the United States will cut back assistance that has been central to the relationship between both countries for three decades. "I do not believe that suspending aid would be a form of leverage at this point. It is too late for that," says Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Washington had a chance to influence events in Egypt. But the Obama administration kept the money flowing even when Egypt prosecuted civil-society workers, including Americans, on charges of illegally operating democracy-promotion programs—even waiving congressional conditions written into the aid package to do so. The U.S. could not certify Egypt was supporting the transition to democratic government and implementing policies to protect due process of law and personal freedoms. And sure enough, that trial and broader crackdown on civil society continued. This summer, after Egypt's military ousted the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, Washington delayed the delivery of some military equipment but avoided directly calling the takeover a "coup." Again, that would have prevented the disbursement of aid. Yet violence in the country continued and a democratic transition did not take place.
Failing to cut off aid after the military wrested Morsi from power "wasn't just a lost opportunity," says Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, "it was a major misstep with the Egyptian military: [The administration] lost credibility to follow through."
The piecemeal decision to withhold some "prestige items" the Egyptian military does not truly need on a daily basis, but continue other aspects of the aid relationship, will give Egypt mixed messages about Washington's intentions. "The administration's desire is to demonstrate to the Egyptian military that if you repeatedly ignore American policy preferences, you will pay some kind of price," Wittes says. "But this is a price that is largely symbolic, because the day to day cooperation, spare parts, joint training exercises—these things are all going to go forward. The urgent priorities, such as counterterrorism and border security, will go forward."
If the U.S. is cutting off aid because of this summer's military takeover, warns Eric Trager, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington is punishing the military for something it cannot change—with high risks. The move, Trager says, could anger the Egyptian public at a time when the country is under assault from extremists; encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to continue their protests with support from the international community; and damage the relationship with the Egyptian military, which has been a linchpin of American geostrategy for decades. Cutting military aid is a "one-bullet gun," Trager says. "And you don't want to fire that bullet unless you're going to hit a target. And if the target is just making us feel better about not supporting a military that's removed an elected leader from power, that's a very low bar for a very important relationship."
Members of Congress, amid swirling reports earlier in the day that an announcement on aid was coming, appeared divided on the issue. "A decision to reduce the flow of military assistance to Egypt would be the correct one as a matter of law and policy," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, in a statement. "The military played a decisive role in the overthrow of a deeply-flawed but democratically elected government, and it's excessive use of force in recent weeks cannot be condoned."
However, fellow Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was disappointed by the news of a partial suspension in military aid. "The Egyptian military has handled the recent transition clumsily, but they have begun a democratic transition which will serve the Egyptian people well in the future and have also worked to maintain regional stability," he said. "During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them." And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee which oversees Egypt assistance, was upset for a different reason, criticizing the Obama administration for "trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid. By doing that, the message is muddled."
The Obama administration does not see it that way. "The United States wants to see Egypt succeed, and we believe the U.S.-Egypt partnership will be strongest when Egypt is represented by an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government based on the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and an open and competitive economy," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. Washington will hold "certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance to the government pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections. The United States continues to support a democratic transition and oppose violence as a means of resolving differences within Egypt."