The 'carrot' of US aid to Egypt

Hicham Mourad , Sunday 16 Jun 2013

Despite concerns on democracy and human rights under Cairo's Muslim Brotherhood regime, the US, in renewing military aid on the quiet, has signalled that Egypt is too important to its interests to abandon

Discreetly, the US State Department renewed military aid to Egypt last month. The announcement was made only 7 June. The administration of Barack Obama avoided a public debate that would be embarrassing on the latter's support for the new political regime in Egypt, run by the Muslim Brotherhood.

US Secretary of State John Kerry used the exemption granted him by law to extend military assistance, despite the concerns of Washington on the new Egyptian regime's policy towards the establishment of a true democracy and respect of fundamental freedoms and human rights in Egypt.

On 9 May, Kerry sent Congress a memo informing it of his decision to extend $1.3 billion of annual military aid to Egypt, citing the need to protect the essential interests of the United States in the Middle East, namely the passage of warships in the Suez Canal, necessary to protect the oil-rich Gulf region against threats from Iran, the protection of the borders with Israel from infiltration by Islamic militants and weaponry, which enhances the security of the former against the threats of Islamic extremists in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.

After the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Congress passed a new law, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, linking US aid to Egypt to progress in the democratic transition, including the holding of free and fair elections and respect of freedoms of expression, association and religion. The same law allows the US government to override these conditions if deemed in the interest of the United States.

However, to do so it must submit to Congress a detailed justification. Contrary to what happened last year, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly justified the US decision to use this exemption, Kerry chose discretion and avoided any public debate on the issue. The reason is that the White House is increasingly embarrassed by its uncomfortable "alliance" with Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood. Evidence is that President Obama studiously avoids so far meeting President Mohamed Morsi.

Kerry stressed in his memo sent to Congress that, despite some progress towards democracy, the Egyptian government has failed to fulfill the conditions stipulated by the new law. The recent judgment on 3 June by an Egyptian court indicting 43 NGO members, including 16 Americans, for illicit financing will not help fix things for the Obama administration in Congress. Several congressmen are calling for a revision of rules governing the granting of military and economic aid to Egypt.

These and many US analysts believe that US policy on Egypt has not changed since the fall of Mubarak. When the latter was still in command, the United States criticised him from time to time for his undemocratic policies and abuse of power, while continuing its military and economic aid.

But given the concerns raised by the arrival of Islamists to power in Egypt in terms of democracy, human rights and foreign policy, the US administration, which employs all means to maintain its "Egyptian ally," tends to separate the manner in which economic and military aid is allocated to Egypt. This policy was already in place under the George W Bush administration, but it has taken on a new dimension with the arrival of the Brotherhood to power.

It is clear at this stage that assistance to the Egyptian army is the backbone of US presence and influence in Egypt. This was already the case from the time of Sadat and Mubarak, but is even more so today. Military aid rose rapidly since the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, reaching $1.3 billion in 1987. It has remained at that level until today.

The explanation for this constancy is simple: the United States wants to maintain its close ties, even its "alliance," with the military in Egypt, which plays a crucial role not only in the maintenance of peace with Israel and the fight Islamist extremism and terrorism in the Sinai, but also in overall political life in Egypt.

Since the fall of the monarchy in 1952, all the presidents of Egypt, except Mohamed Morsi, came from the ranks of the army. After the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011, it is the army that held interim power for a year and a half. And even after the inauguration on 30 June 2012 of the first democratically elected president, a possible return of the military to political power cannot be totally excluded, given growing popular disaffection vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood and the enormous difficulties facing the country in its transitional period.

The United States is well aware of this reality. In his note to Congress 9 May, John Kerry said, to justify the continuation of military aid, that a strong security partnership with Egypt, based on US military assistance, maintains a vital communication channel to the Egyptian military leadership, who are "key opinion makers in the country."

Thus, Washington seems to deal with the Egyptian army in this time of transition and political instability as an entity or actor separate from the rest of the state, that has its own interests to protect, regardless of the political force (the Muslim Brotherhood) that officially holds power. The United States believes it can rely on its strong relationship, through military assistance, with the Egyptian army to maintain its presence in Egypt and safeguard its interests in the region.

As for economic aid, it has continued to decline in importance from $815 million in 1998 to $250 million from 2009 through 2012. After the fall of Mubarak, President Obama promised to Egypt in May 2011 — well before the arrival of the Brotherhood to power — a billion dollars in support. A first tranche of $450 million, however, was suspended by the end of September 2012 by Congress, despite opposition from the administration, after demonstrations against the United States erupted outside the US embassy on 11 September. Kerry announced in early March, during his first visit to Egypt as secretary of state, the release of $190 million of that amount.

The rest of this aid will be subject to negotiations with Congress, dissatisfied and restless at the new political regime in Egypt. Thus, only economic aid has so far been a real American pressure card, and should continue to be so as American concerns persist about the policies adopted in Cairo.

The foregoing shows that the US administration, in its quest to maintain its Egyptian "ally," and despite the momentary suspension of a part of its economic aid, is driven to use the "carrot" rather than the "stick" — to encourage rather than to punish. The United States feared above all that discontinuation of their military and economic assistance could contribute to spreading instability and disorder, or even chaos, and ultimately spur the collapse of the state in Egypt, which is a too important to US interests to abandon to fate.

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