The Egyptian military’s slaughter of hundreds of protesters on Wednesday leaves the United States with a single clear, albeit difficult, course of action: Condition future aid to Egypt on a series of immediate reforms, and stop providing it if these conditions aren’t satisfied.
The numbers reported dead in the latest outrage are horrifying: The Washington Post places the figure at 281, though it’s likely to rise, perhaps dramatically. (Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad claims there were over 2,000 deaths.) Following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president, security forces have engaged in two other mass killings. On July 8, the military killed at least 51 civilians and wounded more than 400 at a Brotherhood protest; and on July 27, security forces killed at least 72 protesters.
The U.S.’s dithering has helped Egypt’s military believe it has free rein to deal brutally with protesters. Writing at the Daily Beast, Ali Gharib argues that the Obama administration signaled that it would never cut off its aid to Egypt by deciding not to describe the military’s seizure of power as a coup. I disagree, as this analysis conflates two different signals that the U.S. has sent.
Though the administration’s refusal to call the coup a coup is a tortured reading of a rather obvious concept, its decision was rooted in our political dysfunction. Though that decision was problematic, most other administrations would have made it too — and that move could have had pragmatic benefits. The possible benefit is that, by maintaining aid to Egypt, the U.S. could also maintain leverage.
Though sometimes this isn’t obvious, “leverage” is not an abstract concept. The dangers of Egypt’s coup were apparent from the outset: There was a good chance the military would succumb to its worst impulses, which in turn risked the expansion of violent clashes and perhaps a radicalization of Islamist factions that had previously decided to participate in electoral politics. (An interview I gave in early July demonstrates how foreseeable these problems were.)
I’m not particularly troubled by the administration’s public indecisiveness following the coup. Egyptians were deeply divided over it, and the U.S. didn’t need to immediately take sides in the country’s internal conflict. But despite this public indecisiveness, the U.S. could have privately taken a stronger stand in its diplomatic dealings with the new Egyptian regime, using cessation of aid as a threat if the government decided to brutalize its opposition. With such behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the administration could have at least tried to save lives and slow the further polarization of Egyptian society.
The real problem, then, is that the administration’s public indecisiveness was not accompanied by canny behind-the-scenes efforts, but by dithering in that sphere as well. The U.S. didn’t clearly communicate that there were red lines in dealing with the protesters that could cause a suspension of American aid.
Whatever one thinks of the Brotherhood — and I’m extremely critical of it — the status quo helps nobody. The dead protesters did not deserve to be killed. The moral costs for the U.S. are too high; and from a pragmatic perspective, the country’s image is further damaged in the region because it’s associated with the present atrocities. The mass killings are likely to radicalize the opposition, and predictions that the Brotherhood or significant factions therein could return to anti-government violence look more prescient each day. And al-Qaeda’s narrative is furthered, as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s dark predictions about Egyptian politics seem to be proven correct.
It’s time for the U.S. to end its dithering. While P. J. Crowley argues that the U.S. should now call what happened in Egypt a coup and cut off aid, that suggestion is even less principled than the course the administration took. Crowley’s suggestion would make the definition of a coup dependent upon the actions a military takes after seizing power; further, it would end U.S. aid without even trying to change the Egyptian military’s posture.
Instead, the U.S. should offer a firm and concrete ultimatum that future aid is conditioned on Egypt’s undertaking a series of changes. For starters, the Egyptian regime should unequivocally apologize for the slaughter of protesters; the officers who ordered Wednesday’s massacre should be held to account and court-martialed; and there should be no further willful mass killings. If Egypt doesn’t comply, 100 percent of the U.S.’s military aid should be suspended.
There are costs to cutting off aid. The U.S. would lose its leverage over Egypt — although leverage seems to have no value if it can’t be used at a time like this. The U.S. also risks losing valuable intelligence that Egypt’s military would otherwise provide about jihadist groups in the Sinai.
But the costs are worth it. The status quo is simply too problematic, pragmatically and morally. It’s time to threaten Egypt’s aid — and, if necessary, to suspend it.
— Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is also the author or volume editor of twelve books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror.