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.

I've argued here and elsewhere for a while that this trilateral relationship must end and be replaced by bilateral frameworks. And I've long been an opponent of foreign aid, whether in the Camp David framework or to the Egyptian and Israeli regimes in particular, for human rights issues. On Egypt, specifically, I tend to think the aid formula should be reworked bilaterally and with a simple condition attached: no transition to civilian rule, no military aid. And I believe that what the Egyptian military fears most of all is not the loss of that military aid, but the loss of the diplomatic support the US has given Egypt for decades to help it have a greater stature than it really has.

The Washington Post, a long-time critic of Egypt under Mubarak, makes the following case:

The Obama administration demonstrated during the revolution that it can sway Egypt’s generals: Washington successfully insisted that violence not be used to end the uprising and that Mubarak be forced to step down from the presidency. Now the administration — and Congress, if necessary — must insist that the armed forces respect their promise of a democratic transition. Egypt’s constituent assembly must have democratic legitimacy; Mr. Fattah and other political prisoners must be released. Above all, Egypt’s army should not be allowed to perpetuate its role as an unaccountable authority while still receiving billions in U.S. aid.

I'm not sure the Obama administration demonstrated anything except hesitation during the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising, and have been skeptical whether Washington's position was central at all to the military's decision not to fire on protesters. The decision the Egyptian military made was largely domestic, and it was about not firing on protestors to defend Mubarak. We know this because they've fired on protestors and arrested thousands since, to no strong protest from Washington. The idea that Obama was decisive in the last days of Mubarak is a myth, and one of the strongest indications of this was that the person sent to parlay with the generals was not the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense, but a retired ambassador close to the Egyptian military's lobby.

The current Washington moves to make aid to Egypt conditional, though offer a mixed bag. On the one hand, I support the general idea. On the other, I know Congress' motivation is probably not the same as mine. And I certainly understand the Pentagon and State Dept's fears if this goes through: that they will lose the little influence they have over Cairo.

Also in WaPo, Walter Pincus reports (also note the Israel aid stuff at the end):

A senior State Department official warned Friday that proposed congressional restrictions on military and economic aid to Egypt come “at the worst possible moment” and risk harming relations with the new government in Cairo.

Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said that, before Congress acts on legislation that could also cut off assistance to Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority, “We must ask ourselves, if we are no longer a partner, who will fill the void?”

House and Senate committees have added language to fiscal 2012 foreign assistance bills that would block the $1.3 billion in military aid that goes to Egypt annually if the government fails to hold free elections and take other steps toward reform. The president would have to certify that U.S. aid is in the national interest.

The legislation could also block funds intended for Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority.

Shapiro said the administration is working on Capitol Hill to get the provisions removed or at least modified.

“The administration believes that putting conditions on our assistance to Egypt is the wrong approach,” Shapiro said, adding, “now is not the time to add further uncertainty to the region or disrupt our relationship with Egypt.”

Shapiro made his remarks during a talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where his prime message was that, despite cutbacks in the U.S. foreign assistance budget, Washington would continue to provide aid to Israel. In fact, he said, foreign military funds scheduled for Israel in fiscal 2012 will top $3 billion, the highest in history for a single year

There are multiple arguments against cutting aid. One is that Egypt needs the aid badly now (actually this is especially the G8 and international financial institutions' multilateral aid) and that postponing delivery will create a risk of the Egyptian economy collapsing or more unrest. But imposing conditions on bilateral aid is quite different from multilateral aid, which will be handled separately from US aid — and multilaterally. In fact, one decent idea for aid to Egypt is that rather than have the US take the lead (with all the concomitant problems that causes in Egyptian and American domestic politics) is to have the US participate in a contact group for Egypt's economy recovery that would be headed by a non-US national and bring in major donor countries and help coordinate their policies (and in my opinion, the first condition this contact group should impose is that it will not deal with Egypt's awful current Minister of State of International Cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, one of the rare Mubarak-era holdovers in the transition cabinet.)

Another argument is that others will fill the US vacuum. The problem here is that the Gulf states already are, but in the long term will they really commit to the same level of aid? And will another power that could do the same, such as China, really interested in doing so? As for the Gulf states, they may have money, but they have an unreliable track record and do not bring the same level of strategic leverage as Western aid. Egypt's real choice is not between the US and another major power, it is between being a closed, failing state or one that is open to the world, improves the quality of life of its citizens and carves out for itself a regional role independently of its alliances, by keeping good ties with the West as well as other actors. Being a US client state has not worked out that well for Egypt, but neither would being a state that defines itself in opposition to the US, as Iran often does.

A third argument I often hear is that the US (and others) have to deal with the cards they were dealt, that the SCAF generals are something you have to work with and you have to be patient with the fact that they are difficult, irrational, and inflexible. I disagree with this because I don't think the West, or anyone else for that matter, should return to the same dynamics as under the Mubarak era. Then, there was reluctance to upset Mubarak and a feeling that arguing with him was a lost battle. The SCAF is playing the same obtuse game of stubbornness. But the rules of the game should not be the same, and they should realize there is a price to be paid. The condition for aid has to be a return to civilian rule — anything else just encourages them to stay in power longer. I do not believe the West, or anyone else, has a responsibility for Egypt's welfare — the justification for aid now even though the conditions are not appropriate. It only has the same responsibility it had before: to deal with a government that can deliver an improvement, not completely unaccountable ones.

I am also surprised that the official quoted above says conditionality is "the wrong approach" to Egypt. Hillary Clinton, giving at the National Democratic Institute's keynote address on November 7, said the following about how the Obama administration's commitment to helping Middle Eastern state make a transition to democracy:

We begin by rejecting the false choice between progress and stability. For years, dictators told their people they had to accept the autocrats they knew to avoid the extremists they feared. And too often, we accepted that narrative ourselves. Now, America did push for reform, but often not hard enough or publicly enough. And today, we recognize that the real choice is between reform and unrest.

. . .

The truth is that the greatest single source of instability in today’s Middle East is not the demand for change. It is the refusal to change. That is certainly true in Syria, where a crackdown on small, peaceful protests drove thousands into the streets and thousands more over the borders. It is true in Yemen, where President Saleh has reneged repeatedly on his promises to transition to democracy and suppressed his people’s rights and freedoms. And it is true in Egypt. If—over time—the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity.

This appears pretty unambiguously to be directed at SCAF and, coming from such a high-level source, denotes not only concern about the SCAF's handling of the transition but also frustration — and a hint that the US will not continue to be so forgiving in its public statements, which have been few and far between thus far and relatively subdued in the case of the Maspero massacre, for instance. So what gives? Why put out that message and then another one that suggests the "private" pressure method of the late Mubarak era (fruitless then, fruitless now?) is the approach being used? I suspect there is some debate about this within the administration, notably between the NSC, State and Pentagon — as there naturally should be. The Pentagon people, in particular, but also many State Dept. veterans will be reluctant to jeopardize the relationship with SCAF.

This is particularly the case if you consider that, in a few months, solid performance by the Muslim Brothers in election might have returned a parliament (and perhaps a government, although that is less likely) that includes Islamists. In Congress, there is already talk of imposing an end to aid to any Egyptian government that includes Islamist ministers (or at least MB ones that support Hamas), based on the model that would trigger an end to US aid to the Palestinian Authority if a national unity government includes ministers from Hamas. It's a pretty silly line to take — but there you are, that's Congress. In its long-term planning, US officials must be looking at Egypt and thinking: if the MB reach power through elections, how do we keep our privileged relationship with the military and encourage it as a bulwark against a radical change of Egyptian foreign policy?

Going back to Clinton's remarks about Egypt missing an opportunity — it already is starting to miss it, and the SCAF is chiefly responsible for this. You can wait things out and hope for a denouement, but chances are in a few months (say once the elections are over) it will be too late, especially if the choice becomes between the generals in SCAF and the Islamists in parliament. If you are going to take a principled stance, then do it now, in favor of a rapid transition to a civilian government.

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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.