US aid and Egypt: back to business as usual

Josh Rogin, reporting for Daily Beast, says the path is now clear to restore US aid to Egypt to its full level. Here's a quote from Michele Dunne that pretty much sums it up:

“I think there’s a sense of giving up on Egypt [inside of the Obama administration], on the Hill as well,” said Dunne. “There’s a sense that ‘Oh well they tried a democratic transition, it didn’t work, but we don’t want to cut ourselves off from Egypt as a security ally, so let’s just forget about the whole democracy and human rights thing except for giving it some lip service from time to time.’”

Also see this report from Ali Gharib on the crucial role Israel and its US lobby played in mustering Congressional support for this.

Last summer, the language on draft bills from the House and Senate on Egypt suggested a substantial reduction in aid and/or the linking of the aid to various requirements, and also threatened to drop the usual waiver the administration could exercise. Now, the administration is only required to certify that Egypt is maintaining good relations with Israel. The path is clear to restore the aid, and the bilateral relationship, to its Mubarak-era level.

Egypt and its patrons

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Why does Egypt receive between $1.3 and $1.5 billion of US aid annually?

"Because of Israel" is the most common answer to that question. Certainly, that is driving much of the American political wrangling over whether aid should be suspended. The New York Times reports that during the back-and-forth among the US and its allies leading up to Morsi's ouster, Israeli officials argued against cuts, and told the military not to put stock in US threats to cut off aid. The Israelis, like the US, greatly prefer the Egyptian security forces to be in charge of the country. Whatever, the depredations of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, or the counterrevolution, Egypt is too valuable for any American leader to risk "losing."

But though the Muslim Brotherhood signaled it might be less hostile to Hamas or Iran than Mubarak was, in practice the former president did little to change existing policies. Under Morsi's short presidency, the Egyptians even stepped up the destruction of smuggling tunnels into the coastal strip (moreover, the Egyptians were reportedly instrumental in negotiating an end to Operation Pillar of Cloud last winter).

Both Israel and Egypt have many shared interests in the Sinai, especially as the security situation deteriorates. Though Egyptian pressure on Gaza is massively increasing now, it was never seriously in jeopardy under the Brotherhood given that the terrorists and criminal gangs in the Sinai were going after both the SCAF- and Brotherhood-led Egyptian state, and it served Morsi little to champion the Palestinian cause while in office.

The massive corporate investment in Egyptian or Saudi defense expenditures certainly contributes to Congressional deliberations against aid cuts. And while one might examine the head of President Obama, and whether his reluctance to "take sides" really suggests a desire to reduce a US commitment to Egypt, the fact that the aid has not yet been publicly cut off suggests that Washington has tacitly taken a side: that of the military's, guarantor of the status quo.

It was, in fact, not just the Israelis telling General Sisi et al. to pay no mind to the US law that requires all aid to be suspended to a country if a coup takes place there. It was King Abdullah telling the Egyptian generals that the Kingdom would make up for any cutoffs in economic or military aid - the latter, almost assuredly in the form of American-made weapons in Riyadh's possession.

Riyadh's role is extremely important in all of this, especially with respect to Iran's containment. As the CNAS think tank noted in February 2011, Egypt's strategic importance in the wider region has nothing to do with the current deployment of US forces in the country, where the only fully staffed America military station is a US Navy medical center. It instead has to do with the nightmare scenario that would threaten the US's interests in the Persian Gulf: the sudden collapse of any one of the Gulf monarchies that host the radar sites, listening posts, airfields, and weapon emplacements pointing at Iran:

"The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf."

Jane's Defence Weekly presented an analysis of commercial satellite imagery compiled between 2011 and 2012 to illustrate the expansion of US, UK, and GCC "conventional combat capabilities" in the Persian Gulf. The analysis highlighted the most salient points of this cooperation, which all ultimately leads back over that waterway and the Saudi desert to Egypt's own airspace and port facilities.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the failure of the Brotherhood's political experiment in Egypt may be necessary for the House of Saud's survival is not farfetched. Though security concerns largely determine American actions, for the Saudis, there is also the matter of not wanting competition from the transnational Brotherhood as a mass Islamist movement.

While in years past, the Saudis supported the Brotherhood in Egypt - against Nasser, primarily, whose pan-Arabism and meddling in Yemen during the Cold War threatened the House of Saud's shaky legitimacy. But then the Brothers' messaging and aspirations began to appeal to dissidents within the Kingdom, as did other rival Islamist precepts, threatening absolute monarchy with the prospect of replacement. In recent years, top Saudi officials have made extremely negative remarks about the Brotherhood, most notably the late Crown Prince Nayef. Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal fired a Kuwaiti preacher from his Al Resalah channel for having pro-Brotherhood leanings. As a Foreign Policy article recently noted about Saudi efforts to arm anti-Assad Syrian militias, "Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy."

German minister calls for Egypt aid suspension

Egypt's opposition calls for new protests on | tagesschau.de

From a German press report, machine-translated below :

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel feared in his own words that Egypt slips under President Mohammed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood in a dictatorship. There was a risk that the dictatorial Mubarak system auflebe with other people, he said, the "Berliner Zeitung". Given the uncertain conditions in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, an unstable Egypt is a huge security risk beyond the region.

According to Niebel, the German government restricted until further notice, the government contacts with Egypt. So, he wrote about the government canceled negotiations on development co-operation that should take place in mid-December. The planned partial debt relief of up to 240 million euros would be postponed, announced the Minister. "It is in the hands of the Egyptian government," said the FDP politician.

Meanwhile, complete silence from the EU, Catherine Ashton and most member states.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The clock is ticking... for Washington

I took this photo on January 29, 2011 in Tahrir Square. Back to the same issue.

Readers of this blog know that I am against US military aid to Egypt. I was against it under Mubarak and am against it under SCAF. I am partly against aid because I'm not a big fan of any of the big Middle Eastern aid packages, because of the specifics of the Egyptian situation, although I am not against it under any circumstances. The national security waiver exercised by the Obama administration in March was premature and unwarranted, and now they have egg on their face. Washington can buy itself a few days to figure out what's going to happen in Egypt this week — this is what the recent statements frm the State Dept. being "troubled" by the recent developments amount to but the clock is ticking: they will either have to suspend the aid or be openly in favor of SCAF's constitutional coup if they continue it.

It's a situation as black-and-white as the one we see in Egypt today, despite all attempts to fudge the issue. Sara Khorshid puts it well in this NYT op-ed, The Betrayal of Egypt's Revolution:

Given the military’s consistent disregard for basic democratic norms over the past 16 months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s comment last week that “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people” sounded ridiculous.

Despite the army’s blatant power grabs, the Obama administration has had no qualms about restoring American military aid, waiving a Congressional requirement that links military assistance to the protection of basic freedoms, so as to preserve the United States’ longtime alliance with Egypt’s rulers.

America could have sided with the Egyptian people if it had wanted to. But the question is whether the American government really has the will to see Egypt become a democracy.

If the Obama administration genuinely supports the Egyptian people in their pursuit of freedom, then it should realize that democracy will take root only through the revolutionary path that started on the streets in January 2011 — not through the dubious ways of the Mubarak-appointed military council.

Shadi Hamid (with whom I cordially disagree on many issues) also put it well yesterday on Twitter:

These two are Egyptians (Shadi is Egyptian-American), which is important — I think more Egyptians are willing to publicly take this stance. More Americans need to care about this, too. I'm not Egyptian, and care mostly about this for American reasons. It's not just that I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize the US defense industry and pampered generals in Cairo. It's also that I don't want the blowback when Egyptians turn to Americans and say, "you supported our dictators".  The time has come: the US may not be able to influence developments in Egypt, but at least it can stop underwriting them.

The staggeringly stupid fallout of the US-Egypt aid debacle

A must-read column by DNE's Rania al-Malky on the stupid scheme to raise "Egyptian aid" to replace the foreign kind:

If one year after Egypt's downtrodden and destitute people toppled Mubarak with thunderous, unrelenting calls for bread, freedom and social justice, those very Egyptians are being coerced into donating part of their paltry salaries to support a government they did not choose, then it's safe to say that the 'revolution' has failed.

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Dunne & Nawaz: US should not repeat Pakistan mistakes in Egypt

From a NYT op-ed by Michele Dunne and Shuja Nawaz:

A dismayed Congress has attached conditions to future military assistance to Egypt (now $1.3 billion a year), requiring the Obama administration to certify that the military government is maintaining peace with Israel, allowing a transition to civilian rule and protecting basic freedoms — or to waive the conditions on national security grounds — if it wants to keep aid flowing.

The Egyptian military is clearly not meeting at least two of those three conditions right now. Consequently, the Obama administration should not certify compliance, nor should it invoke the national security waiver by arguing that Egyptian-Israeli peace is paramount and that Egypt’s military is the only bulwark against Islamist domination of the country — because both of these arguments are deeply flawed.

First, hardly anyone in Egypt favors war with Israel, and a freeze or suspension of American aid would not change that. Second, continuing support to an Egyptian military that is bent on hobbling a liberal civil society would only strengthen Islamist domination. Islamist groups won some 70 percent of seats in the recent parliamentary elections, but they will now face tremendous pressure to solve the deep economic and political problems that caused the revolution.

In Egypt, as in Pakistan, the ultimate solution is a peaceful transfer of power to elected, accountable civilians and the removal of the military’s overt and covert influence from the political scene. At a minimum, Egypt should establish the clear supremacy of the civilian government over the military and allow an unfettered civil society to flourish.

Washington should suspend military assistance to Egypt until those conditions are met. Taking that difficult step now could help Egypt avoid decades of the violence, terrorism and cloak-and-dagger politics that continue to plague Pakistan.

An excellent argument I wholeheartedly agree with. Glad to see Dunne – one of the better Egypt experts and policy advocates in Washington – take this line. We chatted last February or so and I was saying the same thing but she thought it would be unwise to punish the generals when they had just refused to protect Mubarak. I'm glad she has come around. It's also important to see here, at least implied, an echo of the argument I have been making for a year for the decoupling of Camp David from the US-Egypt relationship. The idea that the US has been bribing Egypt to stop it from going to war with Israel has always been absurd – under Mubarak and today.

Sen. Leahy declares war on Fayza Aboul Naga

From a statement on the dispute over US NGOs in Egypt by Senator Patrick Leahy:

Many suspect that the force behind this crackdown is Minister of International Cooperation, Faiza Aboul Naga, who was described in a Washington Post editorial this week as “a civilian holdover from the Mubarak regime” and “an ambitious demagogue [who] is pursuing a well-worn path in Egyptian politics – whipping up nationalist sentiment against the United States as a way of attacking liberal opponents at home.”  Given Minister Aboul Naga’s recent statements, I strongly believe that no future U.S. Government funds should be provided to or through that ministry as long as she is in charge.  As the chair of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, I am confident there is strong support in Congress for this position.

Read the full statement here. This diplomatic spat has just gotten a whole lot more interesting.

[Via @kristenchick]

The Egypt economy/aid debate

Over at the NYT's Room for Debate, the discussion is How Allies Can Help Egypt Get Back on Its Feet. I agree with Shadi Hamid that aid must be made conditional on clear benchmarks and with Khaled Fahmy on the need for transparency and accountability (which often is not given by the donors themselves). Ellen Lust makes excellent point that money can create new problems, what she calls the "bifurcation". As for Emad Shahin, who wants aid with no strings attached (here I think he means punitive neoliberal "reforms"), I've disagreed with him in the past. My bottom line: no completed transition, no aid.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Should the US cut its aid to Egypt?

With the Maspero massacre, the widespread use of military tribunals, high-profile detentions like that of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mikael Nabil, and its apparent attempts to rig the next constitution, Egypt's current military junta isw not looking good to anyone, inside Egypt or outside. But to both, it also looks like the only choice, the devil you have to deal with. This ambivalence has now revived that old problem of US-Egypt relations in the Mubarak era, Washington's acute clientitis problem: you're stuck with a client regime you don't like, but have little alternative but to continue because of a set of related policy questions.

This was the reason that for years aid continued to flow to Egypt, despite some congressional opposition, even at the nadir of the relationship between the Bush administration and the Mubarak regime. Oddly, both the criticism of aid to Egypt in Congress and support for it in the administration has largely been about Israel. On the one hand, congresspeople wanted to pressure Egypt to do more on the Gaza/Hamas issue, and on the other the administration did not want to sever military aid it views as underwriting the trilateral relationship created by Camp David. A secondary concern was the late Mubarak regime's autocratic turn and, now, SCAF's increasingly autocratic and incompetent leadership.

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US aid and diplomacy budget cut, except...

In the US, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are working on bills that would make deep cuts to the US foreign aid budget. These cuts will undermine the Obama administration’s policy of relying more on such aid as a completement to US power, reduce the ability to open consulates and finance international organizations, and make any idea of a “Marshall Plan” for the post-uprisings Arab world completely moot. But of course there is an exception:

The Republicans also attach conditions on aid to Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinians, suspending the latter entirely if the Palestinians succeed in winning recognition of statehood at the United Nations. However, one of the largest portions of foreign aid — more than $3 billion for Israel — is left untouched in both the House and Senate versions, showing that, even in times of austerity, some spending is inviolable.

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The old Egypt-US aid fandango

Jaroslav Trofimov of the WSJ has a piece highlighting linguering opposition to USAID funding of NGOs and recognition of the democracy promotion outfits NDI and IRI in Egypt:

CAIRO—A U.S. plan to fund the democratic transition in Egypt has led to a confrontation with the country's new rulers, who are suspicious of American aims and what they see as political interference in the aftermath of President Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

Senior Egyptian officials have warned nongovernment organizations that taking U.S. funding would damage the country's security. The Egyptian government has also complained directly to the U.S.

"I am not sure at this stage we still need somebody to tell us what is or is not good for us—or worse, to force it on us," Fayza Aboul Naga, who has been Egypt's minister for planning and international cooperation since before the revolution, told The Wall Street Journal.

Ah, that old chestnut. Why not make it more simple and just cut off all economic and military aid altogether? A lot of people in DC think that would be rather weird — backing an autocratic Mubarak regime but not its successor. But these things should not be thought of in terms of Egypt, they should be thought of in terms of the US. Money could be better spend at home, and aid to Egypt and Israel has for decades used to a large extent to maintain autocratic regime (the one in Egypt and the one that rules the Occupied Territories.) Cut them both off and let's stop listening to their complaints. 

Of course, that's not the way these things work out. It looks like we're set for more passive-aggressive drama as the US goes ahead with disbursing the aid anyway and the Egyptian government whines about it. At least it's better than accepting restrictions on some aid distribution the way the Bush administration did for years

And one more thing: why does Fayza Aboul Naga, who is widely seen within the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a loose cannon, still have a job?

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Foreign Aid for Scoundrels

Foreign Aid for Scoundrels by William Easterly | The New York Review of Books:

The international aid system has a dirty secret. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the nations and organizations that donate and distribute aid do not care much about democracy and they still actively support dictators. The conventional narrative is that donors supported dictators only during the cold war and ever since have promoted democracy. This is wrong.

. . .

In any case, dictators have received a remarkably constant share—around a third—of international aid expenditures since 1972. The proportion of aid received by democracies has remained stuck at about one fifth (the rest are in a purgatory called “Partly Free” by Freedom House). As for US foreign aid, despite all the brave pronouncements such as the ones I’ve quoted, more than half the aid budget still went to dictators during the most recent five years for which figures are available (2004–2008).

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