Speak softly and carry military aid

The United States’ policy toward Egypt has come under the spotlight once again with the controversial decision to resume parts of its military assistance, triggering resistance from senators threatening to withhold it. But this annually recurring debate is plagued by simplistic binaries over an assistance package with outdated objectives, and one that is ultimately unsuitable for Egypt’s complex political reality.

On the one hand, the core argument against resuming aid is that resuming military assistance would be considered a vote of confidence for the Egyptian regime, and would consequently signal a resounding step toward the normalization of relations with a government whose authoritarian agenda and frequently brutal tactics are well-publicized. Hence, suspending aid would be an explicit rejection of Egypt’s authoritarian direction, and a gesture for America’s support for democracy.

The resounding problem here is attempting to use military assistance as an incentive toward democracy. Historically, it has served to foster not just peace, but more active strategic military cooperation between Egypt and Israel at a time when the predominance of Egypt’s military in political affairs was not an issue for the US government. The networks of political and economic privilege in which Egypt’s military elite have long been enmeshed negates the misguided idea that it is somehow dependent on external military assistance for its domestic power. The ongoing dominance of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has been determined by its ability to set the terms of Egypt’s transition, and particularly its power to secure its own standing within it. Suspending this assistance will neither deter the military’s political ambitions, nor push Egypt back onto the path to democracy.

On the other hand, some have argued that cutting military aid won’t turn Egypt’s military into democrats, which, while true, is not an excuse to simply resume assistance unchanged and hope for the best. If this assistance cannot serve as effective leverage over Egypt’s domestic transition now, it is difficult to imagine it being any more effective once, and if, a president and parliament are firmly in place. Simply resuming aid is a desperately short-sighted policy to preserve strategic interests in a region where American influence is dwindling. Equally, the case for preserving Egyptian-Israeli peace is no longer relevant, nor the suggestion that a civilian president would tear up the peace treaty. In short, the idea of resuming military assistance in order to preserve US interests is a misguided one.

Even if we subscribe to the notion that the Americans seek stability — even if carried out by an authoritarian regime — we should be aware that authoritarianism does not always go hand in hand with stability. Policymakers must not surrender to the logic that the expected election of presidential candidate and former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s uprising — if that is their understanding of stability.

The more immediate problem in simply resuming aid is related to the spike in terrorism in Sinai, following the events of June 30, the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent “war on terror.” As much as the Egyptian regime has tried, force is not the solution to what is, at heart, violent repercussions of political instability, particularly in the restive Sinai, where successive governments have historically failed to address the political-economic demands of the locals and a place that is now subject to a bloody tug of war between the regime and militants. The regime’s sightless “war on terror” is enabling pre-existing grievances to morph alongside new ones, particularly those of militants clearly flooding the area. 

Civilians appear to be the ones overwhelmingly suffering from the consequences of the military’s campaign in the Sinai, and they cannot be simply dismissed as “collateral damage.” If, as some argue, military aid is an inadequate tool for influencing Egypt’s political situation, then, by the same token, Apache helicopters delivered by the Americans as part of the aid package are inadequate tools for solving political instability. Of course, it would be absurdly hypocritical for the United States to lecture another country on the loss of civilian life in a “war on terror,” but this particular argument is not a matter of “principles,” it’s a question of interests.

One could comfortably claim that whether the United States is more interested in Egyptian stability or Egyptian democracy, its current policy is helping neither. While a greater role for the United States in Egypt’s domestic quagmire is not advisable, pushing for a political solution is a better bet for all parties than the current impasse, and a better alternative to current US foreign policy, which is both reactionary and lacking in clear objectives.

Moving beyond military assistance

It is now clear that reverting to a Mubarak-era stance of backing a “stable” — even if authoritarian — ruler has become a far less credible proposition than it once was. But an American foreign policy toward Egypt that moves beyond the narrow prism of relations with Israel would be a highly productive change. Such a policy would allow the US to adapt its stances toward the Egyptian military based on their role in exacerbating domestic instability. The US clearly recognizes the problem of its contradictory position of calling for democracy, while hoping the interests of an Israel-friendly military elite are preserved. But so far the only “innovative” effort has been Chuck Hagel’s ham-fisted suggestion that the military step back from politics by sending Sisi a biography of George Washington. Hagel would have had more impact if he hit Sisi with the book.

In the end, a more effective US policy toward Egypt needs to abandon its unilateralist approach based on its “special relationship” with the country. The Obama administration must factor in the reality that Egypt’s status quo are not reliant on the US as they once were, and despite narratives of a growing regional Cold War, it is regional powers who are increasingly coming to the fore.

Furthermore, the Obama administration is facing its crisis over Egypt at home. While it’s not clear if aggrieved senators will be able to put a halt to the resumption of military assistance, the government would do well to take note of this rising frustration over aid to Egypt, clearly demonstrated by an impassioned statement from Senator Leahy, chairperson of the sub-committee in charge of signing off on the assistance.

Even if the assistance is eventually approved, the Obama administration would do well to truly “recalibrate” its policy toward Egypt to move beyond the outdated and ineffective threat of withholding military assistance, and its soft condemnations that continue to fall on deaf ears. More importantly, the Americans need to revise their unilateral approach in the region.

Common interests with the EU and UK in regional stability could serve as the basis for a collective and more influential form of pressure on Egypt’s reckless regime — despite all having quickly abandoned initially strong stances. Given the United States’ less than favorable image among Egyptians, a multilateral effort could also avoid the inflammatory impact its actions continue to have.

Gulf money alone cannot solve Egypt’s problems, nor can it help replace American arms, or technical assistance, which is still provided by the EU, IMF, World Bank and others. Therefore, economic sanctions on Egypt’s military elite would be a powerful incentive; however, this could prove a far too inflammatory measure in the likely event that Sisi is to become Egypt’s next president.

Despite the Gulf monarchies clearly setting out their stalls, there is still a case to be made that unquestioning and lavish support for the military will do little to aid either political or economic instability, and the Muslim Brotherhood will not be deterred so easily nor excluded in the long-term. Reconciliation — even if it seems unlikely at this stage — cannot be ruled out if the only alternative is a further descent into violence.

There is little that is stable in Egypt’s domestic affairs beyond the political power of the military. But the international community should not fool itself into believing that this will translate into broader stability, nor that the opposition to the coup is now the only popular grievance with this regime.


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