Cutting Egypt Aid Too Little, Too Late

What this will prove now, months after the military takeover and years after the crackdown on democratic civil society began, is unclear.

Egyptian security forces patrol the seafront in the northern coastal city of Alexandria during a demonstration in support to Egypt's ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and against the military on September 20, 2013. Egypt's army-backed authorities arrested the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood on September 17 and froze the assets of other Islamists, in a new blow to deposed president Mohamed Morsi's supporters.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Oct. 9, 2013, 1:26 p.m.

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.”

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