While the Obama administration can find plenty of legal and national security justifications to suspend part of its military aid to Egypt, the move does not carry enough leverage in its current form to promote an inclusive political process in the country. The cut could prove insignificant, given the cash flow available to Cairo, and it might end up backfiring and undercutting U.S. influence in the country.
The State Department announced hours ago that it will “continue to hold the delivery of certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance to the government pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections.” The suspension on military aid, which currently totals $1.3 billion a year, will primarily target he shipment of a dozen Apache helicopters, according to the Washington Post. The New York Times reported it will involve suspending tanks, helicopters and fighter jets shipments. The U.S. is currently withholding $585 million as part of this year’s budget and is halting the delivery of four F-16 warplanes.
The aid suspension will not, however, include a cut in support to counter terrorism operations or security issues in Sinai and on the Gaza border, nor will it affect spare parts or training support.
U.S. officials refer to Obama’s speech at the United Nations last month as the groundwork for such a partial suspension. In that speech Obama announced that Washington “has not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems, and our support will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a democratic path.” In other words, the failure of Egypt’s military and the interim government to launch an inclusive political process with the Muslim Brotherhood, after ousting the elected President Mohammad Mursi in July, is the reason for the current suspension.
By cutting some of the aid, the U.S. is sending a warning to the Egypt’s military and hoping to force a reassessment of their policy towards the political transition in the countryJoyce Karam
Politically, there are three pillars that drive the American administration’s calculus. The first is the pressure on the White House from Congress and the political elite to do something in the face of the military crackdown against the Brotherhood. Egyptian authorities forcefully dismantled the group’s sit-ins in August killing at least 600 people, arrested its political leaders and most recently have initiated legal action to disband the organization. Secondly, the stability of Egypt has become a bigger concern to the administration with recurring clashes across the country and the inability of different factions to reconcile their differences.
Thirdly, and most importantly, is the fear among U.S. policymakers that clamping down on the Brotherhood and driving its leaders back into jails or hiding will ultimately make the movement more radicalized and could produce another Ayman Zawahiri. It is those same tactics, used by the former government of Hosni Mubarak, that helped drive Zawahiri from the streets of Cairo to the helm of al-Qaeda. This is a nightmare waiting to happen for Washington and one that the administration has been hoping to avoid since the ouster of Mubarak in 2011.
A slap on the wrist
By cutting some of the aid, the administration is sending a warning to the country’s military and hoping to force a reassessment of their policy towards the political transition in Egypt and the Brotherhood. However, judging from the public discourse and their prior actions, it is very unlikely that this slap on the wrist will change the policy course for Egypt’s generals, who have been defiant and stubborn throughout the crisis.
Technically speaking, it is hard to see how withholding a dozen apache helicopters and four F-16s will be a game changer for the military establishment. Since the U.S. floated the idea of cutting the aid, 15 billion dollars were pledged by Gulf states, Russia even offered to conduct military exercises. While it is true that there is no alternative to the superiority of U.S. military aid today, the proposed cuts will not touch the spare parts and the training that gives the U.S. its leverage. The suspension is too little too late and while it could be an initial warning sign, it’s unlikely to change General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s actions.
The cutback could, however, risk fueling more anti-Americanism on the Egyptian street. Especially since the U.S. message has not been clearly defined after the events of June 30.
The curb in aid, even if it is simply a symbolic and temporary act, is a risky gesture on behalf of the American administration. First and foremost, it could harm U.S.-Egypt relations. Pursuing vigorous diplomatic efforts with regional countries such as Turkey and Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other, to bridge their differences on Egypt and push for a political roadmap might be more effective in securing U.S. interests in Cairo in the long run.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam