The Skeptics

The Establishment Is Confused on Egypt

Bruce Riedel has written a piece arguing that proponents of cutting U.S. aid to Egypt believe that doing so will “leverage” its military “to back down” and that the act of cutting aid is a “good threat” that only works once.

I found the piece confusing, but I think the problem partly lies in a decades-long policy that fails to “leverage” the aid we currently give.

Riedel writes, “the aid lever probably helped persuade the generals in 2011 not to use brute force to smash the revolution.” Here he separates Egypt’s riot-control police from the body of senior generals, even though both groups are appendages of the same repressive regime. Moreover, in mid-April 2011, a military tribunal sentenced political activist Maikel Nabil to three years in prison for insulting the military. Days before Nabil’s arrest, security forces in Cairo fatally shot two protesters and detained dozens more for violating the national curfew and a ban on demonstrations. Don’t these measures constitute “brute force to smash the revolution”?

Riedel then pivots to another argument for U.S. aid: Israel. He says U.S. aid amounts to “a large bribe to persuade the officer corps to back what most believe to be a humiliating peace treaty.” If, as Riedel argues, aid was an emollient intended to soothe Egypt’s wounded pride, then that has little to do with persuading Egpyt to not start a war with Israel. If aid is just a bribe to maintain decent relations with Israel, isn’t the expectation of other behavior ancillary? Besides, the cooperation we got in exchange for our "large bribe" was not always smooth.

In 2008, a top U.S. diplomat reported that when U.S. officials talked to leaders of Egypt’s Ministry of Defense about border security, counterterrorism, civil defense and peacekeeping, these efforts were met with limited success, and Egypt strongly resisted—and only later supported—millions in U.S. foreign military funding for a countersmuggling system on the Gaza-Egyptian border. Furthermore, in 2007, the director of the Israel Security Agency reported to U.S. diplomats that Egyptians seal up tunnels under the Rafah border crossing but have done nothing to shut down extensive smuggling operations that bring explosives from Sudan, and perhaps Yemen and Libya, and that Egypt could have acted to cut off much of the smuggling but did not.

Moving on, at the end of his piece, Riedel seems to contradict his advocacy of U.S. aid: “The United States should not fund a military coup even to save the peace treaty.” Do we not agree? U.S. aid continues to flow even as Egypt’s illiberal democracy backslides. Indeed, U.S. aid continues to support a brutal regime that maintains its authority through the denial of free speech, arbitrary imprisonment, savage repression and routine torture.

Riedel’s piece aside, recent news reporting has focused on Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi has claimed that Egypt will adhere to its international commitments, but U.S. officials may want to take that pledge with a grain of salt. Aspects of the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Agreement, such as Egypt’s sale of natural gas to Israel below the global market rate, will certainly be up for review. Moreover, even though Morsi professes freedom for all Egyptians, including women and Coptic Christians, the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Morsi is a part) has a history of going back on its promises. Last year, it claimed it would not run a candidate for president. It has argued for free-market policies even as Morsi invokes the need for minimum and maximum wages.

Let us hope that the situation in Egypt progresses, but the liklihood of significant liberal economic and political reforms does not look good.