Point/Counterpoint: On the Question of US Aid, Who Gains the Most?

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On the question of US aid to Egypt, who stands to gain the most – the United States or Egypt? Tarek Radwan, associate director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Mahmoud Salem, an Egyptian blogger and activist, share their points of view. 

Tarek Radwan:

The United States should cut foreign military financing (FMF) to Egypt. Will it upset the military? Will it damage, however temporarily, the US-Egyptian military-military relationship? Will it upend defense contracts signed between the US defense industry and the Egyptian army? Will it threaten strategic interests such as over flight rights and shipping lane preference through the Suez Canal? The answer to all of the above, unfortunately, is yes. It is a tiredly revisited argument that comes round and round, inevitably resulting in either minor disruption or simply a continuation of FMF. But the question of long term interests is never within in the time horizon of political decision making regarding this issue.

Let’s review: First, the assistance to the Egyptian military, based on 1979 peace treaty with Israel (though not explicitly included in the text of the treaty), is built on an over forty-year-old premise that is simply outdated. There are no traditional geostrategic threats to Egypt or Israel. The security threats that do exist entail asymmetrical warfare with militant groups and marginalized populations, and both remain largely within their respective borders. The solution to these security problems will not be answered by tanks and fighter jets. Security cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian forces will remain adequate, aid or not.

Second, the degree to which military financing is entrenched, limits any major shifts in aid policy in response to Egyptian political maneuvering. The need for a restructured FMF program will take years to reformulate, but in light of Morsi’s ouster by the Egyptian military, cutting aid remains the best opportunity to hold the military to account for a speedy return to civilian rule. It also gives the United States more time to devise a plan for a package that actually addresses mutual security interests.

Third, the United States is in desperate need to review its own economic output. Instead of focusing so much on the defense industry, it may behoove the administration to review its own economic future as other sectors of its economy, infrastructure, and education struggle, stagnate, or stall. It will not be easy, as this particular industry has managed to insert itself into every corner of the United States—politically via geographically dispersed locations, and economically via support for employment figures.

Fourth, it’s US law. The Foreign Assistance Act mandates that the US cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

The repercussions of this argument are not insignificant, but suspending FMF need not be an on-off switch. Aid restructuring can take many forms and its new shape should preserve the Egyptian military’s relationship with the United States. It requires a quantitative analysis of the economic cost weighed against the potential benefit of a long term investment in  policy mobility in Egypt, an assertive diplomatic stance globally, and a chance to rework the system to the people’s mutual benefit—whether American or Egyptian. Some factors will be hard to quantify, but must nonetheless remain part of the equation in any cost-benefit analysis. Freedom and democracy, after all, are priceless. 

Mahmoud Salem:

The debate in Washington over whether or not to suspend US military aid to Egypt, while fodder for policy debates and discussions across the aisle, is a waste of time. Despite what US law may say on the matter, the reality of US-Egypt military relations and US interests in the region make suspending aid implausible, or even impossible. In reality, the rhetoric of whether or not to cut aid, will achieve only one thing: it will add to the significant, and unprecedented, anti-US sentiment in Egypt. This will in turn empower the influence of ultra-nationalistic voices who are calling for Egypt to reject US aid for the sake of sovereignty and national dignity. Both sides, however, seem unaware that cutting US aid to Egypt would largely be in the best interest of both the Egyptian government and its military, and not so much in the interest of the US, whether in the short or long term. The United States will not even benefit in terms of aid restructuring, which is the only silver lining policy-makers pushing for the suspension of aid have had to offer.

While the public bemoans the amount of aid given Egypt over the years, the $1.3 billion has largely benefited both US corporations and US strategic interests in the region; namely maintaining regional stability (i.e. peace with Israel); maintaining the strategic partnership with the Egyptian military; and ensuring the continued preferential treatment US ships—both military and commercial—receive at the Suez Canal. Suspending aid would not only deny the United States these benefits, it would also allow the Egyptian government to offer them to the highest bidder. There are other superpowers who are all too willing to pay a lot more to replace the United States, and many who would not be as concerned with regional stability.

On top of all of this, if the United States wishes to resume aid relationships after a new Egyptian president is elected, it would then have to renegotiate an aid package, at a time when $1.3 billion is no longer as impressive as it was in 1978. The Gulf countries (Kuwait, Saudi, and the United Arab Emirates) gave Egypt $15 billion in aid in one day last week. Advocates of cutting United States aid should consider how much bigger Egypt’s aid package would be if such a renegotiation were to take place. The United States will have very little to gain from this, unlike Egypt, which is why, as an Egyptian, I will gladly join the US voices calling for the suspension of aid. Please do it, we dare you, and see where it gets you.

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