The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The future of US aid to Egypt

Here's an interesting piece on the future of US aid to Egypt by Scott Carpenter, who used to run the democracy-promotion office at the State Department until about a year ago. The piece is important because it highlights the little focused on the 2004 MOU between Egypt and the US, which formalized tying aid to specific benchmarks for economic reforms. Carpenter and others in the Bush administration had found willing allies for this type of reform among the economic team of the Nazif cabinet, who were in favor of (and carried out) radical neo-liberal economic reforms in the financial sector. They also hoped that the MOU could be repeated in the future for specific political reforms, but did not find the backing for that in Egypt, and thus there was no follow-up (and of course the bilateral relationship has soured, at least in Congress, considerably since then.)

Carpenter makes the argument below that in light of Egypt's continued poor human rights record (and, I would add, the inability or unwillingness of Cairo to deliver major pro-US developments in the region, notably Palestine) Congress is likely to continue its anti-Egypt campaign. I don't think that one should underestimate the ability of the Egyptians to offer compelling reasons to the incoming American administration to protect it from Congress (if you can convince Dick Cheney you can convince anyone!), but the prospect of rising Congressional hostility should not be dismissed either. Of course, the whopping assumption in this argument is that Hosni Mubarak still leads Egypt: a new Egyptian leader would throw everything off-balance, depending on how he is perceived inside of Egypt and in Washington.

For Egyptians, U.S. aid is mainly symbolic, forever linked to the Camp David peace agreements. But as assistance shrinks and conditionality rises, the attractiveness of the aid has dropped significantly. Some have argued, in fact, that it would be advisable to scrap the economic assistance altogether in the interest of smoother relations. Negotiations on such a "small" pot of money have been endless and contribute to bitter feelings on both sides. Moreover, the assistance provides Congress with numerous opportunities to condition what remains, putting additional stress on the relationship. So why does Egypt fight every year for the assistance? Why does the U.S. Department of State not argue that bilateral relations would be better without it? The answer: both are interested in maintaining a shield for Egypt's military assistance.

Many in Cairo and the Department of State worry that if the economic assistance shield is lost altogether, Congress, with the Obey-Lantos amendment precedent now set, will push more aggressively for conditionality on military assistance. For this reason, many are fighting to maintain it. This state of affairs, however, is unlikely to last into the next U.S. administration. No matter who wins the presidency, Egypt's critics in Congress will increase, and with it, Congressional ire, especially as Mubarak's regime has moved beyond Ibrahim to target the next generation of would-be activists. Blogger Abdel Karim Soliman, for instance, has been jailed for nearly two years for insulting the president and Islam. In July, fourteen young Facebook activists were arrested for "incitement against the regime," a day after flying Egyptian flags and singing patriotic songs to commemorate the 1952 revolution.


The Mubarak regime's resolute failure to live up to its human rights obligations will give ammunition to members of the next Congress eager to send a strong message to Cairo. As a result, future U.S. administrations will find it difficult, if not impossible, to justify economic assistance to Egypt, let alone to increase it. The White House, instead, will have to fight off multiple efforts to condition Egypt's military assistance. Waivers similar to those Rice announced this spring will increase, embarrassing both Egypt and a White House forced, however reluctantly, to stand with its "strategic partner."

Egypt could change all this. If a new leadership were to present a clear vision for the country's future -- one that Americans could understand and support -- Egypt would find willing supporters in both branches of the U.S. government. Unfortunately for Egyptians and bilateral relations, such leadership is not on the horizon. Conditioning military aid may, therefore, be the only avenue open to vent U.S. displeasure.

[From The Future of U.S. Assistance to Egypt]