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By Alison Lake
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Confirming rumors this week that the United States might reduce its military assistance to Egypt, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Egypt’s military chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi on Wednesday that the United States would curb some aid and reinstate it pending improvements in the country’s political situation.
Egypt is a key ally of the United States in its goals of stabilizing the Middle East and fighting terrorism. Yet the Obama administration has been under pressure by human rights groups and members of Congress to acknowledge recent violent events in Egypt and respond to the ongoing army crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and killing of over 1,000 protesters in August 2013.
The United States has pointedly avoided using the word “coup” to describe al-Sissi’s takeover of the country’s government following the military’s ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
Since the 1978 Camp David Accords were signed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt President Anwar El Sadat, U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt has averaged about $2 billion a year in military and economic aid, according to an October 9 ProPublica report. Egypt was for years the second-largest recipient of military aid from the United States after Israel, and in 2013 received the most U.S. foreign aid after Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
The Arab Spring revolutions and changes in leadership in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 have presented new scenarios for U.S. foreign policy in the region. As part of a U.S. government review of its ongoing military and economic aid to Egypt, a June 27 report of the Congressional Research Service stated, “U.S. policy makers have routinely justified aid to Egypt as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running military cooperation and on sustaining the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.”
The Foreign Assistance Act mandates that the United States cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Presidential administrations have applied the law selectively throughout history. President Bill Clinton cut some aid to Pakistan following the army coup there by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, but President George W. Bush reinstated all of it after September 11, 2001.
This current pullback on aid to Egypt amounts to a minor slap on the wrist and an acknowledgement that aid will resume if Egypt moves in a general direction towards democratization. The relative lack of conditions attached to this aid may suggest the United States is more focused on regional stability than on the potential effects of a military coup in Egypt.
For the United States, the benefits of maintaining a strategic alliance with Egypt and promoting its peace with Israel apparently outweigh the inconvenience of a military crackdown and widespread protests. Aid to Egypt gives the U.S. military “expedited processing” through the Suez Canal and in Egyptian airspace, as well as military, counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation and an unmatched point of leverage in its Middle East foreign policy, with the exception of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
America’s military alliance with Egypt also brings significant cash and business to the U.S. economy. American arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Deloitte Consulting, Boeing and Raytheon maintain significant contracts in the millions of dollars yearly with Egypt. A Pentagon official told Reuters this week that the U.S. government faces billions of dollars in potential costs if it decides to cancel foreign military aid to Egypt.
In addition to suspending shipment of F-16s in July, the United States will discontinue sending Apache helicopters, M1 tanks and Harpoon missiles under existing contracts. “Many U.S. manufacturers of military technology have a financial incentive for the aid to continue,” said Matthew B. Ingalls, an Islamic Studies professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. “We should expect these manufacturers to lobby Congress and the State Department to reinstate the original military aid package.”
From Egypt’s standpoint, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have pledged to make up the difference in aid to Egypt. Replacement aid from the Gulf would be an apples-to-oranges shift in terms of the level of military assistance and hardware. Most of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance is spent to purchase American-made tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and other weapons.
Military policy aside, the United States has also invested billions of dollars in promoting human rights and democracy in Egypt. It sent about $24 million a year between 1999 and 2009 to a variety of NGOs there. Recently the Egyptian government became hostile to the work of some NGOs and last year began a crackdown on American pro-democracy groups.
The measure of reducing aid is intended to be temporary until Egypt governs the country more democratically. “Our support will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a more democratic path,” Obama said in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in late September.
The Foreign Assistance Act remains as a possible deterrent to supporting military regimes. ”It would seem that the letter of the law does require a cutoff of U.S. aid, as the Egyptian army’s intervention appears to fit the definition of a coup,” wrote James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But the spirit of the law, which was passed to help protect democracy, would support continuing aid because the coup was launched against a leader who was ignoring the will of the people in order to impose his anti-democratic Islamist agenda,” Phillips said.
The army’s July 3 coup was justified, Phillips wrote, “to remove Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian regime, which had provoked a popular backlash that threatened to spiral into a civil war. The coup is apparently supported by a majority of Egyptians and gives democracy a second chance.” The army, despite its violent suppression of protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood, or possibly due to these tactics, is now the only widely trusted national institution in Egypt. “It also remains committed to peace with Israel, one of the highest U.S. priorities,” Phillips said.
Withholding partial aid could have an opposite effect of angering Egyptians rather than inspiring them to pursue a more representative government. Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond, taught and researched recently at The American University in Cairo and was an eyewitness to the Tahrir Square revolution. “The question of American military aid to Egypt has become increasingly controversial and even convoluted since the downfall of the Mubarak administration in February 2011,” Carapico told The Atlantic Post. “Discussions in Washington about suspending aid lead more and more Egyptians to resent what they see as U.S. ‘meddling’ in their internal affairs.”
Egyptian civilians also question the privileges the United States “buys” with this aid, Carapico said: priority passage through the Suez Canal, over-flight permits for American military aircraft and access to Egyptian intelligence. She believes that direct military aid to Egypt contributes very little to the safety, security or well-being of Egyptians. ”Washington needs to recognize that the ‘threat’ of suspension of the aid package gives them very little leverage in Cairo these days and instead probably fans anti-American sentiments,” Carapico said.
On the other hand, reducing military aid could send a strong message to the Egyptian government and improve America’s image in the region. Howard Eissenstat, Middle East expert and history professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., told The Atlantic Post that from the U.S. perspective, reducing aid “is a wise move. For the U.S. to be able to speak effectively in the region, we must be critical not only of the abuses of our adversaries like Iran and Syria, but also of our allies.”
Despite its faults, the government of Mohammad Morsi was democratically elected and the military regime now in place “has shown itself to be equally incapable of dealing with its opposition,” Eissenstat said. He believes the U.S. curbs on aid will not have a powerful immediate effect since Saudi Arabia is “pouring billions in to support the current government. But these curbs clearly demonstrate our displeasure and, frankly, they are vital to U.S. credibility in the wider context of the Arab uprisings.”
Some observers emphasize that U.S. regional security policy is not required to be in line with Egypt’s internal politics, nor expected to have an effect there. Dr. Ingalls at the University of Puget Sound doubts that withholding some aid to Egypt will have a dramatic effect on that country’s domestic policies. “It was never intended to serve as leverage over such policies, and it’s difficult to see how its intended function would have shifted on its own over the years.”
Perhaps now that the hopes of the Arab Spring revolution are ringing hollow in Egypt and violence is increasing, the United States could add human rights conditions to its policy of military aid to Egypt. “Suspending U.S. military aid to Egypt is long overdue, given the widespread and grave violations of human rights by the military-run government,” commented Hisham Ahmed, politics professor at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga. “Such a suspension, in addition to sending a message to the Egyptian military that the U.S. is not happy, will contribute to improving the image of the U.S. in the Arab world, especially since the U.S. is viewed as applying double standards when it comes to human rights.”
In any case, the situation in Egypt poses a real threat to regional peace and security particularly if it continues in the coming months. The outcome is uncertain as the Egyptian military pushes the Muslim Brotherhood back underground and maintains a strong grip on state security. General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi could on the one hand help facilitate elections and the development of a new constitution, and then step out of the way. Or, a military-led government may be Egypt’s only answer for the immediate future in order for the country to avoid civil war and further sectarian violence.
Alison Lake is The Atlantic Post’s Director and Executive Editor, based in Washington, D.C.