Cut Aid to Egypt's Military

The present policy sends the message that the army can get away with anything.

Protesters calling for the removal of Egypt’s president provoked the military to respond to their demands. On July 3, the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi from power, just as it had toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.

The parallels between these events beg the question: will Egypt’s newly stated plan for a democratic transition be any more stable or successful than the last attempt?

Early on July 9, military-appointed interim President Adly Mansour announced a constitutional declaration in which constitutional amendments, parliamentary elections, and a new presidential poll would all transpire over roughly the next six months.

This “roadmap,” which puts a constitution in place before elections are held, is the “re-do” many revolutionaries—recently named interim vice president Mohamed ElBaradei first among them—have been calling for ever since March 2011. At that time, a little more than a month after Egypt’s successful uprising, a whopping majority, encouraged by the military and the Islamists, supported a referendum that placed elections first.

The order of the transition is new, as is the quick timeline. Following Mubarak’s ouster, it was eighteen months before another president was in place. Yet recall that immediately after taking power in 2011 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) also announced a six-month transition plan. Indeed, it was disruptive protests that caused the military authorities to delay parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011. And if post-Mubarak Egypt has had one constant, it is the guarantee of disruptive protests.

In addition to those clamoring for a “re-do,” the protests that help bring down Morsi were assisted by counter-revolutionaries bent on an “undo.” Mubarak-era elites and entrenched bureaucracies have opposed Morsi not because of his authoritarian tendencies, but because it was a Muslim Brotherhood authoritarianism that was boxing them out of the new order and attempting to entrench itself in the state’s institutions.

This time around, the Egyptian people, with a push from the international community, will need to hold the military to its transition plan while watching out for attempts to undo many of the positive but overlooked changes since 2011.

The need for external support for freedom and social justice—two of the three pillars, along with bread, of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution—makes the American reaction to the events in Egypt all the more disappointing. While Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait see their interests fulfilled in the toppling of an elected Muslim Brotherhood government, U.S. officials have taken pains not to refer to the extrajudicial removal of a democratically elected president by the Egyptian military as a “coup d'etat.” According to U.S. law, when a coup occurs the United States must withhold military and economic assistance until democracy is restored.

The Obama administration is concerned that following through on such a requirement would damage relations with the Egyptian military—which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. assistance—at the exact time it is most needed. It also argues that U.S. aid was not altered when Mubarak violated the universal rights of Egyptians, or when SCAF clamped down on civil society, or when Morsi governed in a less-than-democratic manner: what message does it send to withhold aid now that protests have led to the toppling of Morsi in the name of democracy?

This is a short-sighted decision, which amounts to saying the United States was wrong not to leverage its aid previously and should therefore continue with the misguided policy. By maintaining aid through legalistic gymnastics, the administration continues to send the message that Egypt’s leaders can get away with any internal action, no matter the effect on democratization or human rights. This also sets a bad precedent, suggesting to other allied militaries that the United States will look the other way when they do the same.

Cutting off aid until democracy is restored would also act as an incentive for the military and the interim government to stick to their quick transition timetable. Given that Secretary of State John Kerry just released a tranche of aid in May, it is possible the Egyptian military may not even need another infusion this year.

Finally, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship has been due for a reset since the 2011 uprising. The United States has avoided such an alteration, worried about what it would mean for military-to-military relations. Egyptian military leaders were familiar with U.S. law requiring an aid cutoff, yet chose to act anyway. On July 3, Egypt made the decision to alter the relationship. The United States should take the opportunity to strengthen ties with broader segments of society than merely whatever faction has the most power.

Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst focusing on U.S.-Egyptian relations. Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold