Egypt’s Existential Agony

Why President Obama and Congress are bystanders to history.

An Egyptian woman sits by the Suez Canal after several protesters set fire to tires on the city's dock in an attempt to prevent ships from coming in to the strategic city of Port Said at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal, in Egypt, Saturday, March 9, 2013. An Egyptian court on Saturday confirmed the death sentences against 21 people for taking part in a deadly 2012 soccer riot but acquitted seven police officials for their alleged role in a trial that has been the source of some of the worst unrest to hit Egypt in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
National Journal
Major Garrett
Aug. 20, 2013, 4:28 p.m.

On Sunday, Pres­id­ent Obama played golf and law­makers de­bated the fu­ture of mil­it­ary and eco­nom­ic aid to Egypt. That much you already knew.

What you prob­ably didn’t know and what ex­plains the pre­dic­a­ment of re­du­cing or elim­in­at­ing U.S. aid to Egypt (which runs about $1.5 bil­lion an­nu­ally) is this:

While Obama was hack­ing his way through his last 18 holes at Martha’s Vine­yards and law­makers were dis­sect­ing the defin­i­tion of a coup, the air­craft car­ri­er USS Harry S. Tru­man and two ac­com­pa­ny­ing des­troy­ers and cruis­ers passed through the Suez Canal.

Where was the Tru­man head­ing? The Ar­a­bi­an Sea.

Why? To provide air sup­port for U.S. and in­ter­na­tion­al forces in Afgh­anistan.

The Tru­man will soon re­place the USS Nim­itz and its car­ri­er group. The Nim­itz will soon re­quest per­mis­sion to pass safely and swiftly through the Suez on its way back to the United States. Sig­ni­fic­antly, Egypt not only grants per­mis­sion to U.S. ves­sels to pass through the Suez, it al­lows U.S. Navy ves­sels to jump to the front of the line.

Naut­ic­al line-jump­ing is not the basis on which U.S. policy with Egypt can or should be based. But it’s not a trivi­al con­sid­er­a­tion. Even after most U.S. forces leave Afgh­anistan at the end of 2014, the Navy will need to patrol the Ar­a­bi­an Sea. Do­ing so re­quires reg­u­lar and un­mo­les­ted ac­cess to the Suez Canal.

In the early days of Mo­hamed Mor­si’s gov­ern­ment, the Suez Canal was handled as it al­ways had been — pro­fes­sion­ally and with U.S. line-jump­ing fa­vor­it­ism pro­tec­ted. That was a con­fid­ence-build­ing meas­ure, as was Mor­si’s move to clamp down on anti-Is­raeil vi­ol­ence in Ga­za and his com­mit­ment to the Camp Dav­id ac­cords. That led the Obama White House to be­lieve it could deal with Mor­si, but his re­lent­less con­sol­id­a­tion of power on be­half of the Muslim Broth­er­hood proved fatal in­tern­ally and ex­tern­ally.

Now, the White House is para­lyzed by the ques­tion of what do with what re­mains of un­spent U.S. aid to Egypt in the face of the trans­ition­al mil­it­ary gov­ern­ment’s mas­sacre of ci­vil­ian pro­test­ers. The U.S. urged the mil­it­ary to avoid blood­shed, prac­tic­ally beg­ging it to se­lect any of nu­mer­ous pos­sible ges­tures to dif­fuse the situ­ation: re­lease Muslim Broth­er­hood pris­on­ers (in­clud­ing Mor­si) ar­res­ted after a Hog­wart’s-like coup-that-must-not-be-named; al­low Mor­si to briefly re­turn to power, resign, and bless a demo­crat­ic trans­ition pro­cess; or choose al­tern­at­ive mem­bers of the Muslim Broth­er­hood with which the mil­it­ary would ne­go­ti­ate a move to­ward new elec­tions. The mil­it­ary re­jec­ted all op­tions, hu­mi­li­at­ing U.S. and European Uni­on dip­lo­mats and ex­pos­ing the true di­vide between the U.S. and Egypt.

Obama and his ad­visers be­lieve the Ar­ab trans­ition (no one at the White House calls it the Ar­ab Spring any­more) is worth pre­serving and Egypt can play a role in demon­strat­ing that demo­cracy — though un­even in its ap­plic­a­tion — can take root. The Egyp­tian mil­it­ary cares far less about demo­cracy than it does about break­ing the back of the Muslim Broth­er­hood. For the mil­it­ary lead­ers at the head of the trans­ition­al gov­ern­ment, the Muslim Broth­er­hood equals ter­ror­ism and crime and must be sup­pressed. It will kill in the streets, ar­rest the liv­ing who will not re­lent, and use every strong­man tac­tic the re­gion has come to know and loathe to ce­ment its hold on power. Then, the­or­et­ic­ally, it will turn back to­ward demo­cracy.

The White House has been try­ing to coax that trans­ition since Mor­si was sacked, but the two sides are not speak­ing the same lan­guage. The Egyp­tian mil­it­ary wants a blood-soaked vic­tory and then will de­cide how a demo­cracy can grow. The White House fears the blood-soaked vic­tory will nev­er be fully real­ized and Egypt is on a slip­pery, per­il­ous road to a pro­trac­ted civil war. (Note: Hol­ly­wood nev­er made a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby sing-along com­edy called The Road to Al­ger­ia.)

The game is not just about U.S. aid — about $600 mil­lion is left in mil­it­ary as­sist­ance this fisc­al year and about $260 mil­lion in eco­nom­ic aid. It’s also about In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund loans and dir­ect for­eign in­vest­ment. The mil­it­ary’s evoc­a­tion of a do­mest­ic war on ter­ror­ism against the largest and best-or­gan­ized polit­ic­al party (that’s why Mor­si won!) jeop­ard­izes U.S. aid and makes the pro­spect of fu­ture IMF loans highly sus­pect. As for out­side for­eign in­vest­ment, an in­tern­al war on ter­ror­ism threatens tour­ism and im­per­ils any sense ma­jor Egyp­tian cit­ies can func­tion as fu­ture com­mer­cial hubs.

Even so, the mil­it­ary is bet­ting it can sur­vive. And its use of neigh­bor­ing Ar­ab na­tions as a tem­por­ary cash cow serves to re­in­force this per­cep­tion-cum-il­lu­sion. The simple fact is Saudi Ar­a­bia and the United Ar­ab Emir­ates can provide cash. But the U.S. can provide cache — the kind that works won­ders at the IMF and in for­eign in­vest­ment circles. If the U.S. pulls out of Egypt, it will mean a lot more than los­ing $1.5 bil­lion in mil­it­ary and eco­nom­ic aid. It will mean a lost eco­nomy and a deep­en­ing sense of hope­less­ness among apolit­ic­al Egyp­tians who crave a func­tion­ing eco­nomy. That will lead to more street protests and deep­er un­rest.

The White House has been preach­ing this long-term mes­sage to the Egyp­tian mil­it­ary since it jailed Mor­si. But the mil­it­ary only sees a short-term war on ter­ror­ism and an ex­ist­en­tial fight for Egypt’s fu­ture. The fu­ture is genu­inely at stake and U.S. in­flu­ence and lever­age has proven in­suf­fi­cient to the task.

Per­haps it al­ways would have been. Either way, the White House feels be­sieged by events it can­not con­trol or even min­im­ally dir­ect “¦ even as the Nim­itz be­gins to plow its way to the Suez.

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