US Should Not Cut Aid to Egypt’s Military

US military aid can sustain American leverage and assist Egypt’s democratic transition.

al-monitor An Egyptian air force F-16 fighter jet flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Jan. 30, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis.
Daniel Serwer

Daniel Serwer


Topics covered

us, saudi, obama, military, kuwait, imf, gulf

Jul 12, 2013

The American reaction to the Egyptian coup (yes, it was a coup, no matter how popular) is schizophrenic.

The Obama administration, with significant support in Congress, accepts the new situation and is trying to make the best of it, pushing behind the scenes for the Egyptian army to re-establish civilian authority and move quickly to revise the Constitution and hold new elections, which have been promised within six months.

Democracy advocates want an immediate suspension of all aid, claiming it is subject to the legal requirement to cut off assistance in the event of a coup. That is not entirely correct: The economic portion, by far the smaller slice at $250 million, is not limited in the same way as the military portion. Most of the military portion for this fiscal year has already been transferred. There is therefore no urgent need to make a decision one way or the other on US assistance, which is tiny compared to what Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are anteing up ($12 billion).

Cutting off US assistance would reduce US influence relative to those with such deep pockets. It would inaccurately give the impression that the US wants Mohammed Morsi returned to power. It would puzzle and offend the Egyptian military, which is in charge, as well as the Egyptians who took to the street in unprecedented numbers to demand Morsi leave. The New York Times claims,  "Delivering an order of American-made F-16 jets to Egypt anytime soon would be provocative." Not delivering products already paid for would not be provocative?

The longer-term damage could be significant. Why would any Egyptian government buy American if we don't respect our contracts just before delivery? We withheld F-16s from Pakistan for decades to get Islamabad to limit its nuclear ambitions. How did that work out? Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state.

The real leverage for the US might come from its virtual veto over the $4.8 billion in International Monetary Fund loans slated for Egypt. But if the Gulf promises materialize, Cairo is likely to continue to take a pass on that money, as it would require sharp cuts in food and fuel subsidies that might ignite still another popular rebellion. US willingness to press the IMF for less stringent conditions might give us some purchase in Cairo.

But the sad fact is that otherwise the United States does not have a lot of leverage on Egyptian decision-making right now. Our diplomats will do best if the rug is not pulled out from under them. They need to make it clear that continued US assistance depends on Egypt moving toward a credible and inclusive civilian government as well as revision of the Constitution in a transparent and participatory way. That may take more than the six months that has been allotted. 

They should also insist on correct treatment of former President Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who need to be brought back into the political process. And the US government should shift more of the economic assistance package to democracy promotion efforts: free media, rule of law, political party development, election monitoring and the like.

There is evidence that positive support after a coup lengthens the stay of the coup leaders in power. But it is already clear that ample support to the Egyptian coup will be forthcoming from the Gulf states. The issue now is whether Egypt's trajectory bends toward or away from democracy. Suspending American aid to Egypt now would not give Washington added weight in Cairo. It would reduce American influence, throw Cairo into the arms of the Gulf, and decrease the already poor odds of an eventual democratic outcome. 

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at On Twitter: @DanielSerwer

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