On American Calls to Impose Conditions on Aid to Post-Revolutionary Egypt

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There has been increased talk in US Congress lately on imposing conditions on American economic and military aid to post-revolutionary Egypt, which currently sits at $1.5 Billion annually.  In the past week, four members of the US Senate proposed amendments to the federal budget concerning this aid.  Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of $250 million in aid to the Egyptian regime, Senators Marco Rubio, John McCain, Rand Paul, and James Inhofe, proposed amendments, together with a fifth amendment put forward by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.   

These latest calls reflect the fumbling manner in which American decision-makers have tried to deal with the outcome of Egypt’s January 25th Revolution, which deposed American ally Hosni Mubarak and brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which historically opposes Washington and its policies.  Egypt has witnessed an increased discontent with the policies of the American administration in post-revolutionary Egypt, which they see as supportive of the now-ruling Brotherhood. 

A review of the proposed draft amendments reveals two key groups within US Congress and other decision-making bodies.  The first is the more extreme, and calls for a complete stop to American economic and military aid to Egypt.  They claim that it is not in America’s interest to support a regime that rejects the values and principles upon which the Unites States was founded.  They support their view by claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood has adopted policies that would damage American security and national interests.  For example, the Egyptian regime failed to protect the American embassy during the crisis surrounding the film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), which included protests and an attempt by protesters to tear down the American flag.  This is not to mention the ambiguous attitude towards Israel, America’s ally in the region. 

To this day, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has not once mentioned the word ‘Israel’ in any of his speeches, despite claims by the Brotherhood that they remain committed to the 1979 peace treaty.  Supporters of this more extreme view cite anti-Semitic statements made by President Morsi before he assumed his current post. This is in addition to his opposition to the French intervention in Mali, a view that the American administration found deeply worrisome.  This first group’s case for an end to American aid can be broken into six main arguments:

  • The current American economic difficulties, following the global economic crisis of mid-2008, have resulted in a desire to control government spending, and limit financial commitments to foreign operations.
  • An end to American aid would help allay internal criticism on the part of taxpayers, who object to aid to a country that refuses American assistance, and which displays hostility towards it.  This, in addition to criticism from members of the Egyptian opposition, who claim that Washington aims to strengthen and reinforce the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  There is also widespread popular opposition to the acceptance of military and economic aid from the U.S.  A Gallup poll, published in February of 2012, revealed that 71% of Egyptians oppose American economic aid to Egypt, while 74% oppose aid that is aimed directly at Egyptian secular organizations.
  • The Egyptian regime does not share in the values of freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights.
  • Military aid does not help to sway the opinions of Egyptian citizens, who oppose American policies in the region.
  • A shift away from military aid will provide an opportunity for necessary changes to the Egyptian-American military relationship, in which the US would only pay for services it wants from Egypt, such as the use of the Suez Canal.
  • It would allow Washington to provide aid to countries that need it and would be thankful to receive it, such as Tunisia, Morocco, and other African nations. 

The second group is more moderate, recommending that the aid is conditional.  They do not see that cutting off or even reducing aid to the Egyptian government will serve American interests in the region.  This would in fact have the opposite result, harming American interests by causing Morsi’s policies, both foreign and domestic, to become more extreme.  Furthermore, if Egypt were left to fail as a state, it would likely have a disastrous effect on the security of US allies in the region.

Supporters of this position link continued aid from Washington to three essential conditions.  The first is a continued commitment to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and would include several measures that the government would have to take in support of this commitment, particularly involving the security situation in the Sinai.  Secondly, cooperation between Egyptian and American intelligence and security forces must continue.  Finally, the Egyptian regime would have to take steps to move Egypt towards a constitutional democracy, one which would respect human rights and the rights of minorities, and which would allow secular organizations to operate within Egypt without being threatened or attacked by the security apparatus.

In short, recent developments in Egypt following the revolution, including the continued struggle between political forces, the absence of any national consensus regarding the transitional government, and the lack of desire on the part of Egypt to cooperate with Israel, have all strengthened the position of the second group.  The imposition of condition on American aid also seems more practical in light of the dire state of the Egyptian economy.  The aid will not magically solve all of Egypt’s economic problems, but its physical value is outweighed by its symbolic importance.  In this vein, it has also been suggested that American military aid be either suspended, or that a portion of it converted to economic aid. 

Despite increasing calls from within the US Congress to suspend military aid or reduce it at the slightest downturn in American-Egyptian relations, this will not take happen as both sides remain convinced of the importance of American military aid to Egypt, particularly as regards American security and interests in the Middle East.  These security motivations recently caused military officials to warn Congress, during several hearings, that it would be a mistake to reduce military aid.  They stressed its high value to the United States, adding that no other country could do what Egypt does for American interests in the Middle East.

In the end, all talk of suspending American aid or of conditioning it on the actions of the Egyptian government has but one goal: to extract further concessions from the Egyptian government in order to advanced American interests.  One may rest assured that no American administration will suspend or cut aid to Egypt as long as there is a decision maker who remains convinced of the importance of Egypt in the Middle East, and of its role in serving American interests, both regionally and on the world stage.

In Cairo, there are clear divisions within both the popular and official stance on US aid to Egypt, with two main points of view, regarding whether or not to continue receiving it:

The first stance itself refuses both military and economic aid on the pretext that it undermines Egypt’s dignity, independence, and would place Egypt under Washington and Tel Aviv’s thumb. Adherents to this stance have increased, particularly after the governmental crackdown on foreign NGOs in Egypt, which was followed by threats by US senators to halt both military and economic aid to Egypt. Several Egyptian clerics, at their helm Salafi Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, called for the creation of a fund to receive donations as an alternative to US aid, but all talk of this fund faded after a lull in the NGO crisis.

The second stance sees the US placing pressure on the Egyptian government, by creating a direct correlation between economic aid and democratic development in Egypt, and the protection of human rights, but at the same time also sees the importance of military assistance in its backing of the Egyptian military establishment. Members of the opposition, many of whom have refused to meet with US officials while in the US, including Secretary of State John Kerry, may have expected, however, the extent of that pressure to be greater.

Among the general population, there exists a significant segment that believes that economic assistance to Egypt is synonymous with aid to the Muslim Brotherhood, at a time when the organization’s legitimacy is threatened by the economic crisis, which as a ruling party, it has been unable to address. They can find no fault with the idea of conditional aid, despite Egypt’s current economic crisis, as long as the ultimate goal of turning Egypt into a country, which abides by rule of law, built on democratic and constitutional institutions that will ensure a peaceful transfer of power and a state based on the values of citizenship, equality and respect for human rights.

Amr Abdel-Atty is an Egyptian expert on American affairs and contributing editor to International Politics Magazine, part of the Al-Ahram Establishment.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

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