US military aid to Egypt and Congress

For several years now, there has been a gathering storm in Congress over aid to Egypt. This used to be about the effectiveness of the aid and the supposed lack of gratefulness from Egypt, or its refusal to publicly back the US over certain goals like the Iraq war or Bush's democratization agenda. Every year, this congressional initiative -- led by both Republicans and Democrats close to the Israel lobby (but also including others) such as Tom Lantos, a veteran Egypt-basher -- was defeated in Congress. The White House and State Dept. have always stood up to those Congressmen who wanted to change the aid program to Egypt, and the conventional wisdom has remained that while the Mubarak regime is no great shakes, it is overall useful and worth propping up.


This annual discussion of the USAID program to Egypt has come up again on 17 May, hot off the publication of a GAO report on the usefulness of the military aid to Egypt that concluded there was really little way to assess that the aid was doing was it was supposed to do and whether it was little more than an annual rent. State Dept. officials and independent experts presented their opinions, and everyone was adamant that aid should not be cut. In fact, most were rather optimistic about the prospects for reform in the next few years and were cajoling Congress into stopping being silly and hand over the cash already.

So for the past few days I've received emails from people alerting me about this, saying it's an outrage and that these people -- even the independent experts -- are giving the standard State Dept. take. Sure, the context makes their testimony look lame. You have hundreds of people getting arrested on the street, judges rebelling, Ayman Nour rotting in jail for another five years or so, a general backlash from the reforms promised in 2005 -- and all these people can talk about is how Egypt is really helpful around the region and did make some progress last year. I don't share the high opinion these people have of the Egyptian government's commitment to reform, but then again I never expected them to care. If you look at it strictly from a "realist" perspective of what US interests in the region are, then I think keeping an autocratic but stable Egypt propped up is definitely a priority. That $2 billion actually gets Washington a lot if you think about it, and if you ask me it's a wonder Cairo doesn't want more. Egypt has been exposing itself to considerably more risk than ever before by becoming a player in Palestinian politics, the kind of exposure that money can't buy. The potential outcome of this is a Palestinian civil war that spills over into Egyptian politics, especially as Egypt is essentially acting as the US-Israeli messenger/enforcer to keep propping up Abbas and Dahlan against the elected Hamas government. (See Mubarak's recent statements about the situation in Palestine.)

Despite all the talk coming from Washington about democracy in the region for the past few years, I've never believed that people there give a hoot about how democratic brown people are. They send people to be tortured in Egypt, for God's sake. And while I don't think that policy is moral, I don't think US policy has ever been driven by morality or that it particularly should. Countries can feel pangs of guilt about other countries that they feel a cultural affinity towards, but generally don't care about somewhere as different and alien to the average American as Egypt or anywhere else in the Arab world. Leave to the fake (and, you shall soon see, quickly abandoned) moralism to the neo-con hanger-ons at the National Review and the Weekly Standard. What the US wants out of Egypt is behavior that satisfies its desire for long-term goal of Egyptian stability by carrying out partial reform, and, most importantly, ensure that the transition from Mubarak to whoever comes after takes place smoothly. What it doesn't want is the most important pro-US Arab state (possibly after Saudi Arabia) falling into civil war, becoming a failed state or (however unlikely) taking the path Iran did in 1979 -- a power vacuum that let in forces extremely hostile to US regional interests. The US' problem is that it has to reconcile these dearly held interests with its internal politics, the inherent optimism and faith that most Americans have about their country's role in the world, and of course the Bush administration

Sometimes I get the feeling that some Egyptians (especially the ones with neo-con intellectual affinities) expect the US to drop a near half-century of US policy towards Egypt and, like it did with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, try to assassinate Hosni Mubarak or something of the sort. Keep on dreaming. All of the achievements in reform of the past year and a half was taken with the sweat and blood of civil society activists. They did it alone and will remain largely alone, although the growing non-governmental international solidarity movement is certainly comforting. For now the US is at best an occasional supporter of individual causes, and probably more generally an enemy of democracy in Egypt. If the US is going to help, it will be because it is pushed by internal forces such as the emerging Alliance of Egyptian-Americans. It worked for Israel and Ireland (in different ways, of course), so it might work for Egypt. Power is not given, it is taken. Egyptians need to think about the means of doing that.

Anyway the testimony given to Congress makes for interesting reading. Some of it will rightly be seen as apologia for the Mubarak regime, but there are some interesting analyses there. Also take note of the Washington Post's editorial on the issue (I'm guessing Jackson Diehl is waiting for 25 May. We miss you Jackson.)

Former US Ambassador to Cairo David Welch, who now head Near Eastern Affairs at State:
As the Secretary also indicated during her testimony on the Administration’s foreign affairs budget earlier this year, overall we have seen progress toward a more democratic society in Egypt and we strongly believe that U.S. aid to Egypt should continue. Egyptians themselves – from our government interlocutors to the democracy activists who have courageously taken to the streets – want a process of reform. We believe that it is in the U.S. national interest for us to remain involved and partnered with Egypt in what will be a generational challenge. With a new generation of leadership preparing to emerge in Egypt, it is critical to American interests and to the lives of ordinary Egyptians, that the United States remain fully engaged in this crucial partnership.
Jon Alterman of CSIS, a frequent commentator on Egyptian affairs:
I am cautiously optimistic about the route Egypt is on. I have met some very impressive young people who are tuned in to the outside world and eager to engage with it on their own terms. The government has been moving slowly but surely on economic reform, after almost a decade of mostly giving it lip service. Freedom of speech is expanding, and the press is unimaginably freer than it was even three years ago.

It seems to me that the most important things happening in Egypt are happening because the world is changing, and because Egyptians want them to, rather than because of pressure from the United States. I am not persuaded that our efforts to impose conditionality have won us significant Egyptian concessions or spurred purposive Egyptian action. We are not without influence in Egypt, but we are surely without control. In my judgment, we have an insufficient understanding of the country or the levers of power within it to force the Egyptian government to do what it does not want to do.

At the same time, I would not write Egypt off as either hostile or useless. The United States derives enormous benefit from its relationship with Egypt, no matter how difficult it often is for both sides. It is hard to imagine a serious U.S. policy in the Middle East that does not seek a strong relationship with Egypt, and it is equally hard to imagine a serious Egyptian policy that does not seek a strong relationship with the United States. We should aid Egypt because it is in our interest, not because we think such aid can transform the country. It is a country that is changing, but it is very much doing so on its own terms and at its own pace.

In definitely agree with the bit about not enough is known about the mechanisms of power in Egypt and the lack of US control. The sentence before last is really the key about how these people think about Egypt. And, as foreign policy, it makes sense.

Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reform Bulletin (also a Georgetown professor):
There are many critical issues that Egyptians would need to work out among themselves during a process of democratization, for example how the system can be opened up to true competition and how Islamists can be incorporated legitimately into the political sphere while ensuring essential stability and the rights of all citizens, including women and non-Muslims. There is little the United States can contribute directly to such decisions, and efforts to do so might well backfire. What the United States can do, however, is use engagement with the Egyptian government and assistance programs to encourage a continual opening of the political space so that the needed debate among Egyptians can take place and decisions can emerge.

Regarding democracy assistance programs, the United States should apply certain principles:

• Keep the main focus on reform issues that Egyptian reform advocates are stressing: independence of the judiciary, lifting the state of emergency, instituting presidential term limits, and redistributing some power from the executive to the legislative branch.
• Begin to develop programs focused on longer term issues that will become important should Egypt move toward democracy, such as building support for civilian control and oversight of the armed forces and for redefining the role of internal security forces as defending the state from violent challenges rather than from non-violent dissidents.
• Expand U.S. flexibility in designing and implementing democracy assistance programs with Egyptian government agreement only to general guidelines.

The foundations of the strong partnership between Egypt and the United States—regional peace, military and counterterrorism cooperation, economic reform—are still valid after nearly 30 years, and in many ways the relationship has strengthened and deepened. Now the issue of democracy has been added to the agenda, partly due to a new perspective in Washington but also because calls for change from within Egypt are being expressed with increasing clarity and strength. While the United States should be realistic about the limitations of its influence in Egypt, it should also make clear that the quality and pace of political reform will be among the key elements determining how the U.S.-Egyptian relationship will develop in the coming years.
I don't think Dunne's ideas of improving the democracy assistance programs will ever bear out, especially the one about civilian oversight of the military, but I do wish the US would raise these issues and tie these kinds of strings to the aid being given. That kind of continuous pressure is just about the best we can hope for from the US at this point.

I also thought the briefing by Michael Coulter, the Deputy Assistant for Political-Military Affairs (the department that does the diplomatic side of dealing with military juntas) because it gives some information you don't hear that much about in Egypt, such as the Egyptian military hospital in Afghanistan.

Also take a look at Praktike's reading of these statements.
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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.