The crisis in Egypt, where the generals are trying to walk back the revolution, has prompted calls to cut off American aid to leverage the military to back down.
President Obama may ultimately use the aid stick because he has no other option. History shows it is a good threat—but once used, it won't work. The United States has given Egypt over a billion dollars in aid annually, much of it for the military, ever since the 1978 Camp David agreement ending Egypt's wars with Israel. It is in effect a large bribe to persuade the officer corps to back what most believe to be a humiliating peace treaty.
The aid lever probably helped persuade the generals in 2011 not to use brute force to smash the revolution, although they probably also worried the rank and file would not obey orders to kill their fellow countrymen. The threat of cutting aid is a useful one. But actually doing so is usually a dud. Its a one-shot pistol; once fired, it’s useless.
Washington has used the aid-cutoff lever many times with Pakistan, for example, and it has never worked. We cut off aid to Pakistan in 1965, 1971, 1990, 1998 and 1999. Not once did Pakistan do what we wanted. In every case, the generals who run Pakistan ignored our demands. Often they found a new, more friendly source of money and arms.
China and Saudi Arabia were very willing to fill the American aid gap. The Saudis will probably do the same to roll back the revolution in Egypt, which they detest. They would gladly pay off Cairo to prevent a democratic role model from emerging in the Arab world's biggest country. If the generals refuse to hand over power to democratically elected politicians, then Obama probably will have no option but to cut aid off. The United States should not fund a military coup even to save the peace treaty. But don't expect the generals to cave and go back to the barracks.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues in the White House on the staff of the NSC. He is author of The Search for Al-Qaeda (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).