Truman National Security Project

Halting U.S. aid to, and losing leverage in, Egypt

By Gregory Aftandilian | 10.11.13

The Obama administration’s recent decision to halt most military aid to Egypt will likely diminish whatever limited leverage the United States has left in Egypt since the popular upheaval that led the military to remove Mohammad Morsi as president on July 3.  Although the decision to halt U.S. aid is being touted by U.S. officials as a temporary measure and will exempt counter-terrorism assistance that Egypt needs for operations in the Sinai Peninsula, the reaction in Egypt is predictably very negative.  The Obama administration seems to think that punitive measures will pressure the Egyptian authorities to pursue democratic norms, while in reality such actions will only feed conspiracy theories of a U.S.-Muslim Brotherhood alliance and cause Egyptian authorities to be dismissive of any U.S. recommendations.

Although it is not easy for the United States to maneuver in Egypt’s highly polarized political climate, the majority of Egyptians have clearly sided with the military because they saw Morsi and the Brotherhood trying to impose authoritarianism and what they called the “Brotherhoodization” of Egyptian society.   Most Egyptian liberals in particular have made a conscious decision that an imperfect democracy—with the military playing a strong role behind the scenes in the political system—is preferable to living under a Brotherhood-dominated regime.  And although the crackdown on Morsi’s supporters this past summer was very violent, causing upwards of 1,000 deaths, Egyptian liberals believe that the Brotherhood was given ample warning to leave its two protest encampments in Cairo and were not completely innocent, as footage of some pro-Morsi protestors firing weapons, as well as attacks against numerous police stations and Coptic Christian churches, have shown.

The Obama administration had tried to steer a middle course throughout the summer, not calling Morsi’s ouster a “coup” to avoid a cutoff of U.S. aid to Egypt under existing U.S. law, counseling regime restraint, and deploring the regime’s violent crackdown on the Brotherhood.  All the while, it said it wanted to maintain the important U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship.  Why it now decided to halt aid is something of a mystery, especially after President Obama’s UN speech last month in which in he said that the United States would continue to pursue its “core interests” in the region, meaning strategic interests and the Arab-Israeli peace process.  Although Secretary Kerry has stated that “by no means is this a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the [Egyptian] government,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that the decision “was wrong in terms of content and time…It raises serious questions about U.S. readiness to provide stable strategic support to Egyptian security programs and amid threats and terrorism challenges it has been facing.”  Supporters of the Egyptian regime have been even more critical, with a member of the Tamarod group (which launched the petition drive in the spring of 2013 for Morsi’s resignation) telling the United States, “To hell with you and your aid…we have many alternatives.”

Although one can argue that the Obama administration was justified in halting most military aid in light of the large number of civilian deaths, the suspension of the Egyptian constitution, and imposition of emergency law (which suspends habeas corpus), most Egyptians do not see it that way.  From the perspective of the majority (those opposed to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood), the United States is trying to resume its support for the “terrorist” Brotherhood for nefarious reasons after its year-long embrace of Morsi who acted undemocratically.  Although this sentiment may seem preposterous to U.S. officials, it is deeply held by large segments of Egyptian society.  Instead of applauding its patriotic military for doing the right thing in removing Morsi from power after millions of Egyptians indicated that they had enough of his policies, this line of thinking goes, the United States is now punishing the very institution that is saving Egypt from the abyss.

Moreover, some U.S. officials seem to have a mistaken belief of what the United States can actually accomplish with punitive measures in a country like Egypt.  Although Egypt is a poor country that is dependent on U.S. military assistance, it is also a very proud country that is very conscious of its role in history going back thousands of years.  “Outside powers come and go, but Egypt remains” is their thinking.  Punitive measures cause a knee-jerk nationalist backlash that greatly diminish, not increase, Egypt’s receptivity to foreign recommendations.

The best hope for a semi-democratic Egypt to come into being is for the Egyptian authorities to stick to their democratic road map that they have outlined.  This includes the re-writing of the constitution (now underway), putting this new document before the public in a referendum, followed by parliamentary and then presidential elections.  The United States should encourage Egyptian authorities to meet these benchmarks and offer assistance along the way.  Halting aid vastly reduces this leverage and inadvertently signals to the Egyptian people that the United States is abandoning them during their precarious second revolution.

Greg Aftandilian is a Fellow at the Center for National Policy.