On US Military Aid to Egypt

The restoration of US military aid to Egypt, with strings attached, came in the middle of a week of tumultuous events in the region. It is still worth a comment, even an unconventional one from a source normally skeptical of most conventional wisdoms.

Many argued that aid should not have been resumed at all since US law prohibits such aid in the case of “coups”. This is an eminently rational and defensible view, and an inconsistent one. If a “coup” is defined as the removal of an elected leader then both January 2011 and July 2013 were technically “coups”. To define only one as a “revolution” is to invite endless and pointless disputations and place one in a position of defending some indefensible actions. More to the point, we should ask how the US came to provide military aid to Egypt and why it should continue it, as well as in what manner.

US-Egyptian began to sour badly in the early 1960s due to Egypt’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Egypt was the revolutionary forward-looking power headed for a collision with Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the traditional regimes. The US sided with the latter due to unreasonable Cold War fears and reasonable concerns about the flow of oil. In reality Egypt’s bark was far worse than its bite; Nasser was no Napoleon, and Egypt was not about to topple regimes across the region. But siding with Saudi Arabia seemed sensible at that moment, even if it put the US in the camp of some retrograde opponents of the Egyptian regime; The Saudi monarchy, the Yemeni Imams, and the socially repressive Muslim Brotherhood. The strain lasted for over a decade, and through two major wars with Israel. The three wars of the 1963-1973 decade left Egypt broke and weakened. The creation of a US military semi-alliance with Egypt and flow of military aid were predicated on the country being no longer a threat to Israel or to the conservative Gulf monarchies, or any other regional power for that matter. That Egypt kept its part of the bargain is still no reason to continue aid; international politics is not a game of cricket and interests trump fairness. Even if aid is discontinued Egypt is unlikely to be a threat to Israel, with which it is enjoying a close relationship, nor to the Gulf countries who underwrite a significant portion of badly needed foreign investments. So why continue the aid; why not save the 1.6 Billion or so of loose change to repave downtown Detroit? The answer is simple; the upside of continuing the aid outweighs the downside of withholding it, slightly.

The optimistic view of the so-called Middle East is that today’s calamities will continue for some time to come. A more informed view sees far worse disasters around the corner. The most rational course of action is to minimize the number of countries and people thrown into the current cauldron. In that vein it is critical not to allow the ramshackle Egyptian state to collapse under the weight of both external factors and internal misadventures. But can military aid do that? Can it really affect the behavior of the country’s most dominant single institution, the military? That depends on the nature of the aid and the manner in which it is administered on an on-going basis. This is where the Obama grudging release offers fascinating possibilities, although one suspects unintentionally.

Altering the Egyptian military from a large tank-and-plane static army into a nimble fighting force will not be easy as it requires social as well as doctrinal changes. But it is a goal worth setting across the board, both in military aid and in other economic and social domains. But that goal cannot be pursued unless the questions are asked and the answers are sought away from the conventional and mostly self-defeating pious declarations about support for democracy and inclusiveness. Without aid there is no leverage, and aid wrongly administered will also have no leverage. The real question is whether the US takes Egypt sufficiently seriously to manage aid closely and with clear cut demands that reach across the entire spectrum of social and political issues. The readout of Obama’s conversation with Sisi hints at desire to see the military alter its ways. That is necessary but not sufficient. There is no reason not to go further and offer a full-throated demand to alter education, support liberal thought and free markets. The reason to do so extends beyond Egypt to the overall region, which remains perilously close to chaos that can draw in reluctant Western powers. The irony is that successful administration of aid will bring Egypt back to a version of itself similar to the 1963 edition, albeit with more economic and military power. Egypt may then become as truculent and difficult a friend of the US as Israel. But at least the region will have the nucleus of a third path away from Iran’s revolutionary Islam and Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Islam. If we are not sure that such path is possible, or that the US can play a role in its emergence, then by all means let us save the money and pave Detroit. But that scenario involves the eternal balancing between the current forces, a continuation of the current oddities where the US seems to be fighting with all sides and against all sides, neither effectively nor to any foreseeable end.

— Maged Atiya

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