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.
With regard to immediate U.S. interests, a piqued Egyptian military could respond to an aid cut-off by curbing intelligence cooperation or impeding U.S. military access to the Suez Canal. Even without retaliatory measures, the Egyptian armed forces will become less capable of controlling the ungoverned Sinai Peninsula and counterterrorism more generally. Most importantly, while the security of the Suez Canal is not necessarily in direct jeopardy, even a small threat to its stability could have disproportionate consequences on commercial trade. Finally, while the loss of $1.3 billion in annual military contracts would not devastate the military-industrial base, it would compound an already dismal defense-industrial outlook in the United States.
Neither American grand-strategic concerns nor its normative interests would fare any better. A hobbled Egypt would be unable to balance Iran. While Cairo would be unlikely to challenge Jerusalem’s military supremacy directly, it may, in the medium term, see confrontation with Israel as a needed diversion from its own domestic troubles. Moreover, a diminished Egypt would abdicate its prime position in the Arab world to Saudi Arabia, the only Arab country left standing with the arms, funds and stability necessary to meaningfully shape regional politics. Lastly, it is hard to see how a withdrawal of U.S. aid would further either the mistaken promotion of democracy or the more convincing defense of liberalism in either a chaotic or Saudi-dependent Egypt.
In sum, no matter how it is structured, the withdrawal of U.S. military assistance would not advance any of Washington’s interests in Egypt or the region at large. A better question is not whether the United States should suspend aid, but how the Obama administration could reorient aid to better serve U.S. strategic interests. For example, given the unconventional nature of Egypt’s current security threats, does it truly need additional conventional, big-ticket platforms such as F-16 fighters and M1A1 Abrams tanks?
As Senator Paul tweeted, the United States should not blindly support an Egyptian government that acts contrary to U.S. strategic interests. The September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as well as the arrest, trial, and conviction of Americans working at democracy promotion NGOs suggested far more important questions about the extent to which aid serves U.S. interests than the current debate over the import of the coup d’état. Messing with the United States simply demands tangible consequences. That said, such consequences must also be aimed at furthering U.S. interests. Just as Washington should not be in the business of writing blank checks, it should not void those same checks without due consideration of what they purchase.
Gabriel Scheinmann and Raphael Cohen are international-relations PhD candidates at Georgetown University.