As many are now well aware, word came on Wednesday evening via a leak to CNN that the United States was cutting military aid to Egypt. After almost a day of furious speculation on Twitter and elsewhere, the outlines of the administration’s plan have come into view, though still without the benefit of an official statement. It seems that Washington will delay the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters, and according to press reports, dock $260 million of cash transfers to the government and pull back on plans for a $300 million loan guarantee.
Here are my thoughts on the issue:
1) Timing—Shortly after the July 3 military intervention, President Obama announced that the United States would undertake a review of its assistance programs to Egypt and the revelations this week are obviously the result. Although clearly the product of a careful and deliberate review, the timing of the policy change is still awkward. Perhaps it was lost on CNN’s source, but the leak came at a sensitive moment—just a few days after Egyptians celebrated the anniversary of the October 1973 Crossing of the Suez Canal. This event is, as I have written elsewhere, central to Egypt’s nationalist pantheon. Needless to say, the timing of the leak only contributed to the offense taken in Cairo over the decision to suspend aid. The unofficial announcement also came just a day after Egypt’s security forces were targeted in eight separate terrorist incidents. Of course, there is context here. The attacks were in response to the estimated 50 or more deaths and between 250 and 400 wounded at the hands of the police and the military during anti-coup/pro-Morsi demonstrations that coincided with the celebrations of the Crossing. The fact that changes to the military aid were leaked shortly after this incident reinforces an erroneous but widely held notion in Egypt that the United States supports the Muslim Brotherhood.
I am sure that critics who support the suspension of aid will argue that the United States should not be worried about offending Major-General Abdel Fattah al Sisi and other senior commanders. There is some truth to this. Egypt’s military officers can handle it, but if the United States wants to work with the one group in Egypt that shares its strategic interests—at least for the time being—the administration would do itself some good to avoid unnecessary slights.
2) Limited Leverage—Suspending the delivery of Apaches and other parts of the aid package is not going to alter the behavior of Egypt’s leaders. First, the Egyptians already have about 35 Apaches. They may want delivery of the equipment, but the helicopters that are now delayed will not have an effect on Egypt’s overall military capabilities. Second, al Sisi and his colleagues are not making decisions based on Washington and its assistance package, but rather they are calculating their interests and determining their political strategy based on local conditions. To the extent that the military and its supporters believe they are in a struggle for the heart and soul of their country, there is very little that any outside power can say or do that will convince the commanders to change course.
3) The Pakistanization of Egypt Policy—Without being an expert of Pakistan, I’m in somewhat uncomfortable territory here, but it seems to me that while the details surrounding the suspension of aid to Egypt differ from those times when Washington has docked Islamabad’s military assistance, the underlying (il)logic is strikingly similar. Like in Pakistan, the United States is delaying/suspending portions of Egypt’s military aid, but at the same time is “underscor[ing] the importance that we [the United States] attach to continuing a strong relationship with Egypt” through the continuation of counter-terror cooperation and other security and non-security-related programs. Yet the fact that Washington is taking punitive measures against Cairo is likely to overshadow the Obama administration’s commitment to promoting economic development, public health, and governance—programs from which few Egyptians actually benefit. American officials can re-affirm their “commitment” to Egypt all they want in press conferences, but from Cairo it does not seem that way. Like in Pakistan, this approach is only going to sow mistrust.
There is very little discernible upside to the decision to suspend aid, but the current controversy reflects a deeper transformation underway that few like to talk about. The strategic rationale for ties is four decades old. With the exception of Egypt-Israel peace, which remains of primary importance to Egyptians, Americans, and Israelis, the foundations of the relationship have weakened or disappeared, portending change. Egypt and the United States are likely to diverge in the future for a variety of reasons—strategic, political, and even fatigue. So even if the administration’s decision to suspend aid was clumsy and it is hard to figure out the upside, it was only a matter of time before it happened because Washington-Cairo ties are changing.