Q: Why does Washington continue to give Egypt aid worth $1.55 billion annually?
A: Because Egypt’s rulers accept and want this assistance.
Q: When will Washington stop giving Egypt this aid?
A: When Egypt’s rulers decide to turn it down.
This is the perplexing dilemma of aid in a nutshell. This article explains the above questions and answers. We begin with current serious tensions between Cairo and Washington triggered by the so-called "NGO trial" concerning US organisations operating in Egypt. Verdicts by the Cairo Criminal Court 4 June sentenced 43 defendants, including 16 Americans, to up to five years in prison.
Despite angry statements by the White House, State Department and several members of the US Congress only hours after the court decision, condemning the verdicts, these statements amounted to no more than describing the sentences as "politically motivated." Some called for US aid to be used to put pressure, with the possibility of halting aid altogether, but no more.
Then, Reuters revealed a document signed by US Secretary of State John Kerry 9 May asking Congress to approve Egypt’s 2013 aid package because it serves US national interests, and confirming the US has no intention of tampering with aid to Egypt, especially the military package. The document stated that military aid to Egypt serves US national interests, including boosting security in the Sinai Peninsula and helping prevent attacks from the Gaza Strip against Israel, as well as combatting terrorism and securing passage through the Suez Canal and the use of Egyptian airspace.
The memo added that military assistance to Egypt can contribute to protecting borders in North Africa and building strong relations between the US and Egyptian armies, creating cordiality and respect. The document further asserted that the Egyptian army is a partner in spreading peace and security in the region, and has upheld the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty for 30 years.
Thus, the draft federal budget for 2014 kept the same level of assistance to Egypt this year, at $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in non-military assistance.
What is the aid for?
In politics, no country gives assistance to another for free or without a return. Interests bring countries together. Few interests are constant and stable; most are changeable and unstable. While the Americans often remember they give Egypt large sums of military and non-military assistance, they ignore to mention what their country reaps in return for this aid.
When relations between the two countries were strained, during George W Bush’s tenure, specifically in mid-2006, some members of the Foreign Relations Committee in Congress requested a comprehensive report about US military assistance to Egypt. Members wanted the report to focus on Washington’s rewards and gains from this handout.
A 43-page report to Congress by the General Accounting Office (GAO) — published in full on the organisation’s website — points to a great many US interests served by military aid to Egypt. The report notes that US officials and several experts who were consulted during the research of the report said aid to Egypt helps promote US strategic goals in the region. Thus, threats to cut military aid are unrealistic, which is why former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen warned Congress of the dangers of reducing military aid to Egypt. Mullen said this assistance carries a high value and no other country can do what Egypt does in serving US interests in the Middle East.
Washington is worried about losing its Egyptian ally and did not dare take such a step before the revolution. The US may now only take this step if Egypt overruns red lines that are not clearly defined (except for annulling the peace treaty with Israel).
Accordingly, Mubarak did not hesitate to imprison Saad Eddin Ibrahim (a dual Egyptian-US citizen) and then Ayman Nour. Washington protested, and then President Bush protested, and friends of the Egyptian opposition in Congress were angered. But Mubarak did not yield and only released them once he felt like it.
US aid or aiding the US?
Although Egyptian-US relations witnessed many tremors over the past 40 years, Washington never cut military aid to Egypt. Although Congress adamantly and repeatedly issues threats to cut assistance if Egypt’s rulers do not change certain policies, this has never happened. This begs the question of why Egypt continues to receive this aid.
The answer, simply, came last week in a statement by State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki who said the US is not bound by the Camp David Agreement to give aid to Egypt, but Washington offers this assistance because it serves US national interests in this critical and volatile region.
Hence, it is impossible to imagine any US administration would risk its special relations with Egypt and cut off military aid.
Will Cairo surprise the world and take control of the situation and liberate Egypt’s foreign policies from the burden of the unholy marriage to Washington? When will our rulers clearly declare “No” to US military assistance to Egypt?