No Time to Turn Our Backs on Egypt

In the wake of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s eviction from office by the country’s military amid an unprecedented mass uprising, there have been calls for Washington to reduce or suspend its aid to this critical ally in the Middle East. Such action would be short-sighted and represent a vote of no confidence in Egypt, not just in the interim government.

Debating what label to put on the recent events deters from the truly important task: developing a strategy to support the restoration of Egypt’s economic and political stability. President Obama’s call for a reassessment of U.S. aid should focus primarily on how we can help Egypt, rather than on whether we should help.

This is a different situation from two years ago. In 2011, the Egyptian military, spurred by an opposition composed largely of young people, replaced President Hosni Mubarak with his longtime loyalist, Gen. Mohammad Hussein Tantawi. This time, the military took action after close to a quarter of Egypt’s population, representing all ages and the entire political spectrum, had taken to the streets demanding political change.

Ultimately, Egyptians will define their own destiny, but it is also true that outside assistance and advice can be useful. And while the United States may no longer be the sole leader of the post-Cold War world, it remains the only country able to mobilize international action on such pressing issues (despite sharply divided opinions within Egypt today about the United States).

The $1.3 billion that Egypt’s military receives annually from the United States was designed as support for maintaining the country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel — a cornerstone of regional security. It has had the unintended effect of preserving the military’s privileged position, with benefits that have little to do with sustaining peace with neighbors. Indeed, the Egyptian military’s challenge today comes less from external threats than from the internal breakdown of law and order. A sense of personal security — that it is safe to walk the streets — would do wonders for the morale of Egypt’s citizenry, encouraging people to go to their jobs, bolstering the vital tourist industry and reassuring foreign investors. Thus the military has a clear interest in ensuring that Egypt has competent, trained and professional police, rather than military forces, on the streets. This will require a change in mind-set as well as a shift in the allocation of resources. Washington can help encourage these ends.

Now is not the time to cut U.S. support. Although we are no longer Egypt’s largest source of aid (Gulf states have provided far more financial support since 2011 and promised billions more last week), our contribution remains significant. The administration should leverage this influence to encourage the interim government and the military to adopt a transparent road map to political and economic reform, and an early return to a democratically elected government. By being smarter with its aid, Washington can promote transparency, rule of law, respect for individual rights (including, importantly, those of women) and the encouragement of a competitive political structure.

On the economic front, the United States should consult with the interim government and other business and civil society groups to determine the optimal role for the international community. Meanwhile, we should encourage Egypt promptly to resume talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where the United States has an important voice.

In a perfect world, Egypt would await a democratically elected government to endorse an IMF program. But the reality is that Egypt is hemorrhaging foreign exchange to support misguided subsidy programs that do not reach the truly needy. Structural impediments, labor-market inefficiencies and corruption further stifle Egypt’s competitiveness. The discipline and oversight of an IMF program would unlock other international funds and bolster the confidence of potential foreign investors. By taking politically tough measures now, particularly given the financial cushion provided by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the interim government can bequeath to its successor a better structure in which to grow the economy and create desperately needed jobs.

Egypt remains the most important country in the Arab world because of its history, its population, its economy and its example. Helping it achieve its goals at this critical juncture clearly is in America’s interest and that of the international community. The United States is in a unique position — by virtue of its international influence and time-tested relationship with Egypt — to convene the relevant parties and to stimulate action. It also has a unique responsibility to do so.

Action is urgent and should be expedited; the present crisis offers a narrow window of opportunity. The anti-Morsi coalition has brought together diverse and competitive factions whose cohesion may be transitory. If we want to enhance the chances of Egypt’s progressive voices to guide their country’s future, now is the time to intensify America’s commitment.

Brent Scowcroft is interim chairman of the Atlantic Council, current chairman of the Council’s International Advisory Board, and former national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Eric D.K. Melby handled economic issues on the National Security Council staff. This piece first appeared in The Washington Post.

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