Egypt and the limits of U.S. influence

Hisham Melhem

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The Obama administration, after the dithering and the hesitancy that characterize its approach to the conflicts of the Middle East, is moving in the direction of implicitly considering the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mursi as a military coup. It has taken initial steps to suspend some financial aid not yet released to Cairo from the current fiscal year as well as delaying the delivery of a shipment of Apache helicopter gunships, while stressing that the “review” of overall aid to Egypt is continuing.

However, the emergence of a coalition of Gulf states willing to compensate Egypt for any aid withheld by the U.S. and/or the European Union will allow the new rulers in Cairo to be immune to any American pressure, at least in the foreseeable future.

Checks and balances

Of the $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid to Egypt, $585 million is still available in Egypt’s account in a bank in New York. The military funding program known as “Foreign Military Financing” requires Egypt to purchase U.S. manufactured weapons systems and spare parts.

The Obama administration is still trying to avoid burning all bridges with Cairo now that the bilateral relations have reached their lowest point since the last days of former President Mubarak.

Hisham Melhem

The economic aid which has diminished from $815 million in 1998 to about $300 million for this year is mostly conditioned and spent on efforts to promote democracy and to import American goods.

This tentative and indecisive position will give the administration a chance to avoid, for the time being, implementing U.S. laws mandating cutting off aid to any country that has a “duly elected head of government deposed by military coup or decree.” The Obama administration is still trying to avoid burning all bridges with Cairo now that the bilateral relations have reached their lowest point since the last days of former President Mubarak.

Burning no bridges

This ambiguous and confusing position reflects President Obama’s stated belief in engagement and in keeping communication open, even with adversaries, and his reluctance to take decisive and costly actions, as we have seen in his lamentable handling of the conflict in Syria.

Moreover, the decision reflect the new dynamics and the profound geo-strategic and political changes that emerged in the region and the world since the end of the Cold War, and their negative effects on Washington’s capabilities and influence in the Middle East and beyond. In the last decades, the American people and the rest of the world discovered, sometimes in shocking ways, the limits of America’s military power in the inhospitable deserts of Iraq and the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan. For the past five years, the U.S. has been trying gradually to regain its economic vitality in a not so brave new world where new rising economic powers such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa are competing with the U.S. in their respective geographical areas and beyond. Simply, America in 2013 is not the same as America in 1980 or 1990 or even in 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion.

The intense debate raging in Washington regarding the potential suspension or cutting off of U.S. aid to Egypt since the removal of Mursi and the end to Muslim Brotherhood rule is taking place between two camps; those who base their arguments on legal and moral foundations to call for an aid freeze, and those who call themselves pragmatic and argue that canceling the aid is akin to someone firing a gun’s only bullet. The moment the bullet is discharged is the moment you lose the little leverage you had.

This camp argues, and it seems that most scholars and students of politics and social studies in Egypt are in agreement, that the freezing of aid will not force the Egyptian defense minister and de facto leader of the new military-political coalition, General Sisi and his lieutenants to change their political calculus. Besides, the history of Washington’s military boycotts against its allies argues against inflicting serious or lasting damage to the Egyptian military.

When Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo on its NATO ally, but it was removed two years later. In 1999, following a military coup in Pakistan, President Clinton did cut some military aid to Islamabad, but military relations were restored by President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11. 2001 attacks.

However, one of the most important new dynamics that are influencing the decision making of the Egyptian military and impacting Cairo’s relations with Washington is the economic package delivered or promised to Egypt from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate and Kuwait totaling $12 billion. This aid amount dwarfs the U.S. assistance and may have led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to admit that “our ability to influence in Egypt is limited.”

Secretary Hagel’s observation is especially true when outsiders try to influence competing or warring parties involved in struggles that are defined by the contenders as “existential”. In the current confrontation in Egypt, those who denounced the violence and brutality used by the army to break up the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins , and those who strongly condemned the Muslim Brotherhood’s against the Police, and other security forces and civilians including the campaign of intimidation against the Copts and the burning and sacking of their churches, all agree that the stakes are high enough to make the struggle “an existential one”. In this zero sum confrontation neither combatant is seeking a political settlement or even a truce. In this environment, the role of outsiders, even allies and friends is very limited.

Some in the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Islamists will likely go underground to wage “resistance” against what they see as the army’s plan to “eradicate” them. On the other side General El-Sisi and his allies are bent on “crushing” the Brotherhood once and for all because they tried to change Egypt’s very own identity. Egypt has entered a long and dark tunnel where it may not face a civil war a la Algeria in the 1990’s or Syria today, but likely a prolonged civil strife, repression, sectarian and religious violence before the return of stability.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on August 22, 2013.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem’s writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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