Our Misstep in Egypt

Yesterday, the U.S. government announced a partial halt to our aid to Egypt — while we’ll continue economic aid and support for various humanitarian and civil-society initiatives, the military aid begun with the Camp David accords in 1978 has been substantially modified. Cash aid to the military and delivery of large weapons systems (F-16 fighters, M1A1 Abrams tanks, etc.) has been stopped — the former amounts to about $260 million per year, and the latter about $500 million. The U.S. will keep providing parts for existing U.S.-made hardware and, importantly, training exercises, education, and cooperation (the regime’s current de facto leader, General al-Sisi, attended the Army War College in 2006). Hopefully, the continuation of those programs, and the years of close and productive relationships between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, will keep up enough trust to prevent the Egyptians from shifting their military affections toward Russia — but that’s no sure thing.

Perhaps more important, though, is what this decision is ostensibly aimed at, and how it’ll be perceived: Despite the lawless behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood government, the U.S. barely intimated that it was even considering cutting off aid; its decision to do so now will reinforce perceptions across the Middle East that the U.S. is sympathetic to or at least not at odds with a global Islamist group that our Muslim allies for the most part despise. Without getting into hysterics, this impression had some basis in reality: The Obama administration’s foreign policy focused on the idea that U.S. interests, Arab interests, and the cause of liberty could be advanced by engagement with moderate Muslims/Islamists. We included the Brotherhood in that group; it is now manifestly clear that if the strategy ever had the chance to work, the Brothers weren’t the moderates we were looking for. And the Arab world seemed to know that, too, with a popularly supported coup tossing out Morsi’s government in July because of its mismanagement and political monopolization, and Tunisia’s kicking its Brotherhood party out of government, in late September, after it proved incapable of organizing a new political order, writing a new constitution, or working with secular groups.

And then comes this decision. Just as the military-led government was making progress on a constitution (which was looking at least marginally less Islamist), the U.S. degrades its support and, likely, is seen as insulting them. The most important factor to remember here: The U.S.’s military aid to Egypt began as a condition of the 1978 Camp David accords, which insists that Egypt secure the Sinai and keep the peace with Israel. While Islamist violence in the Sinai (and elsewhere in the country) has surged of late, the military government actually has done a manful job closing the tunnels that riddle Israel’s border with Egypt, through which Hamas smuggles the supplies it needs to make war on Israel and, more important, from which it extracts toll money that funds its terror campaign — according to Hamas, 90 percent of the tunnels have been destroyed by the Egyptian government. The Egyptians were meeting our most important metric for our relationship with them, respecting and enforcing its peace treaty with Israel (though contra Stephen Walt, this isn’t our only major interest there), better than the preceding government had — and then we decided to express our disapproval in the most substantial way yet.

What will be the terms for restoring full support? The State Department’s announcement says the U.S. demands “credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections.” While that sounds well and good, it prioritizes immediate elections and doesn’t offer any recognition of the importance of writing a proper constitution that will protect minority rights and free expression, and the progress the government had made toward that end – the closest we get to a mention of that is the wishy-washy word “inclusive,” which doesn’t begin to capture the changes that are going to have to happen in Egyptian politics to create a reasonable civil society. It’s a fairly common word in the diplomatic lexicon: The State Department has of late insisted that the political process in Guinea, Mali, and the Maldives be “inclusive” too — countries with their fair share of rifts, sure, but not places with the problems Egypt has to confront, or places where women, liberals, and religious minorities are similarly marginalized (relative to their stages of development, that is). State demands free and fair elections while also saying they want inclusiveness; Egypt’s only had one elected government, and “inclusive” is not the word for it. It might be possible to envision Egyptian elections, within the right republican framework, that do produce such a government, but there is no good reason to think cutting support from the military is a step toward them.

Secretary Kerry’s comments today in Malaysia on the decision did make more specific commitments to republican, constitutional goals, but if that were the U.S.’s main priority, as NR’s editors have argued it should be, State would have made it clearer when they officially announced they’d be reducing the aid. In fact, if that were the Obama administration’s aim, given the situation and recent events, they wouldn’t have decided to do this in the first place.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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