Egypt and the U.S. aid cut: Ineffective symbolism

Despite the media hoopla about the reduction in U.S. military aid to Egypt, the move is largely symbolic. The halt in delivery of certain heavy weaponry amounts to “hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance,” American officials said, without being specific. As such, much - if not most - of the $1.3 billion in military aid that Washington gives Cairo every year is untouched.

The cut does not affect counter-terrorism, border security, operations in the Sinai, or counter-proliferation. Given the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Egypt, and particularly the Sinai, these are arguably the military’s top priorities.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the aid freeze would be lifted if there was “credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections.”

Most of the words in that statement - particularly “credible” and “progress” - are wide open to interpretation. As such, even if the military-installed government only partially fulfils its promised transition to democracy early next year, it could be business as usual in a matter of months.

In a way, it still is - a recent investigation revealed that major weapons deals between Washington and Cairo continued to be signed up to and including August, several weeks after President Muhammad Mursi was ousted, and long after the severity of the crackdown on his supporters became clear.

The aid reduction was designed to be a slap on the wrist against the deadly suppression of dissent following his overthrow. In reality, however, it will have little if any effect. The Egyptian military is riding a wave of popular support and anti-American sentiment.

If the head of the army, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, heeds public calls to run for president, he would almost certainly win, and may even do so unopposed, with former candidates offering their support. Besides, Gulf states have pledged to plug any aid gaps, and have already given $12 billion since Mursi’s ouster. That makes the U.S. cut a drop in the ocean.

It is little surprise, then, that Egyptian officials have not only condemned Washington’s decision, but shrugged it off. “Egypt will not surrender to American pressure,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty. It certainly has not changed its uncompromising, heavy-handed stance towards Mursi’s supporters, and dissenters in general.

Failed balancing act

U.S. President Barack Obama had been coming under increasing domestic pressure to act against the crackdown in Egypt. The aid reduction reflects an attempt to perform a tricky balancing act, showing the authorities in Cairo that his administration will not accept their conduct, but without seriously damaging relations with the Arab world’s most populous country. However, this half-measure has rendered itself ineffective.

Egypt cannot necessarily rely on indefinite aid from the Gulf, certainly not over the length of time that the United States has provided it

Sharif Nashashibi

“I worry this partial aid ‘cut’ is to show we’re doing something, without actually accomplishing anything,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “It’s foreign policy by gesture.”

The United States is achieving “the worst of both worlds,” he added. “They’re not putting pressure on the military, but they’re still going to anger the Egyptian population and make it seem like they’re punishing the military and suspending aid.” In trying to please everyone, Obama has managed exactly the opposite. Egyptians opposed to Mursi say Washington has gone too far, while the former president’s supporters say it has not done enough.

Despite the aid cut resulting from the crackdown on the latter, their scepticism is understandable, particularly given U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent insistence on Washington’s “commitment to the success of this government,” and that “by no means is this a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the government.”

The aid reduction is facing criticism from Americans who believe that it will weaken U.S. leverage in Egypt. In reality, however, Washington had already lost much of that leverage, with widespread anti-American sentiment in Egypt, and a strong sense of defiance against the influence that such aid has afforded since the peace treaty with Israel was signed in 1979.

This defiance is understandable, given the decades of spineless subservience to U.S. interests under former President Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians rightly seek sovereignty from foreign influence, but swapping one patron in the West for others in the Gulf does not accomplish that.

National interests

Many observers claim that Washington’s latest move could cause the unravelling of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which U.S. aid is supposed to underpin. However, it is a common misconception that the two neighbors would suddenly be at war with each other without that aid. A resumption of conflict would be in neither country’s interests.

Besides, Israel has been very supportive of Mursi’s overthrow, and has a long history of cooperation with Egypt’s military. Cairo will certainly not jeopardize this at a time of increasing lawlessness and violence, particularly in the Sinai, which borders Israel. In any case, Egypt - no matter who governs it - would not want a return to conflict with a much more powerful neighbor.

Likewise, it is not in the interests of Egypt’s authorities to make an enemy out of Washington, which is still a major donor to Cairo regardless of the aid cut. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy acknowledged last week that a prolonged deterioration in ties would “reflect negatively on the entire region.”

Analysts are speculating whether Egypt will retract the priority access to the Suez Canal that it gives the United States, or scale back its anti-terrorism cooperation. However, it is highly unlikely that there will be any retaliation that would significantly damage ties. A reaction from Cairo would be as symbolic as the aid cut. Fahmy has said relations with Washington are in “turmoil” - harsh words, but so far just words, and will probably remain so.

Egypt’s military and interim government have little to worry about in the short term. However, if the country increasingly looks like a police state rather than an inclusive democracy, then the aid cut may not just continue, but escalate. That would pose a serious problem for Cairo, entailing the potential for a deeper downturn in longstanding relations with the world’s only superpower.

Furthermore, Egypt’s army is U.S.-supplied. Buying military hardware from other countries is possible - Cairo has already said it plans to diversify its sources of weapons, possibly turning to Russia, a major rival to Washington in terms of arms exports.

However, it would be far easier to maintain and upgrade existing systems than buying new ones from other suppliers. The latter might require a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the army, and would not be provided on such generous terms.

Also, Egypt cannot necessarily rely on indefinite aid from the Gulf, certainly not over the length of time that the United States has provided it. Cairo may be calling Washington’s bluff, but it is a gamble it can ill afford, and risks turning a largely symbolic decision into a real threat.

 

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash
 

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