Cutting Aid to Egypt Is a Terrible Idea
On July 8, the junior senator from Kentucky, Republican Rand Paul, tweeted “In Egypt governments come and go. The only certain thing is that American taxpayers will continue to be stuck with the $1.5 billion bill.” His succinct tweet raises a good question: what does our $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt buy us? What should U.S. policy be after Egypt’s July 3 military coup d’état?
For the moment, the coup has upended traditional partisan bickering and engendered unusual political alliances—Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have called for a suspension in aid, while Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) advocate calm and patience in the matter. For its part, the administration has refused to call the coup a coup—which would legally necessitate a cut-off in aid—and White House press secretary Jay Carney explained that “it would not be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs to Egypt.” But, what exactly are the “best interests” of the United States in Egypt?
There are several immediate concerns in Egypt that directly impact U.S. national security and economic well-being. First, the Suez Canal is the second-most-trafficked passage as well as the third busiest maritime oil route in the world, linking European and Asian economies. The Navy utilizes the Canal as a key transit point, shaving weeks off travel time around Africa. Second, Egypt is a key partner in the War on Terrorism, due to its close yet covert intelligence-sharing agreements, as well as its fight to deny jihadists the use of its territory in the Sinai. Finally, especially in a time of defense austerity, over 80 percent of Washington’s aid to Cairo goes toward buying U.S.-made equipment, funneling valuable dollars back into an increasingly squeezed defense-industrial base.
Beyond these immediate concerns, Washington also has more intangible, yet no less important, grand-strategic regional interests in Egypt’s disposition. Home to 85 million people and the region’s historical and cultural leader, Egypt has been a pillar of U.S. Middle East policy. Its three-decade peace treaty with Israel—which prompted U.S. aid to begin with—redefined America’s strategic outlook at the height of the Cold War. While taken for granted today, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty ended a tumultuous period that saw four regional wars in three decades, including one in which the United States went on nuclear alert. It continues to be a prime interlocutor in the Middle East peace process today. Additionally, Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia, has been a vital regional balance to the aggressive ambitions of the Iranian regime. Until recently and perhaps once again, Egypt has prevented Iranian naval access to the Mediterranean and acted to deny the flow of Iranian weapons to terrorist groups.
Finally, the United States also has important normative interests in the future of Egypt. Historically, the United States has thought to promote liberalism—freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, gender equality and protection of minorities—across the globe, in word if not always in deed. Across the Arab world today, the promotion of liberalism also takes on a strategic purpose. While American policymakers have proffered democracy as the antidote to Islamic extremism, ample evidence, from the AKP in Turkey to Hamas in Gaza to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt and Tunisia, suggests that Islamic radicalism can not only coexist with, but also actively exploit, democratic institutions for nefarious purposes. In contrast, liberalism, with its individual rights and progressive values, is better suited to counter political Islam’s violent and intolerant strains.
What would happen to these interests were the United States to suspend $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt? U.S. foreign military funds (FMF) account for 80 percent of the Egyptian armed forces’ weapons-procurement costs and approximately 30 percent of its overall budget. Moreover, by some estimates, the military controls 15 percent of Egypt’s total economy, maintaining substantial stakes across all major sectors and ownership of vast public lands. A knee-jerk cutoff of aid would seriously impair the cohesiveness and primacy of the Egyptian military and could conceivably have second-order effects for the economy. Such consequences would have serious ramifications for immediate U.S. geostrategic and normative priorities.