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John Kerry has praised Egypt’s “path to democracy,” while Congress passed legislation restoring all aid to the country.
On a sunny August day last year, President Barack Obama took a break from vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard to deliver a rebuke to the Egyptian military. The armed forces had deposed the country’s first elected president, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, in a coup in July 2013. The dark clouds that had been gathering in the weeks since the coup in the Arab world’s most populous country got darker on Aug. 14, 2013, when the Egyptian military ordered the clearing of a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Cairo and slaughtered hundreds of largely unarmed people.
Obama, whose administration had expressed concern but took little action to stop the violence and refused to call it a coup, was forced by the crackdownto speak out. “The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians,” the president said the day after the military cleared out the sit-in at Rabaa square in Cairo.
But his rhetoric hardly matched up to the action he took: canceling a joint military exercise, a symbolic move at best, considering the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. gives Egypt every year as a condition of keeping the peace with Israel and acting as an outpost for U.S. power in the Middle East.
It was a sign the U.S. would look the other way at a military coup crushing any vestige of democracy in the country, in effect giving American blessing to a government that rose to power by force. And as Egypt continued to grow more and more repressive, that’s exactly what happened: the U.S. legitimized the coup by applauding Egypt’s “roadmap” and passing legislation that would restore all aid. (The U.S. has refused to label the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi as a coup, since doing so would trigger automatic aid cut-offs to Egypt.)
Obama’s criticism had no impact. It became apparent that the Egyptian military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was making no moves toward democracy and was instead consolidating a military dictatorship almost three years after the Egyptian people overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak. On October 9, the U.S. announced it was suspending the delivery of Apache helicopters and F-16 helicopters and cutting off $260 million in cash. It was yet another purely symbolic move, and the administration made clear it was temporary. AsAl Jazeera revealed, “nearly 2,000 tons of critical U.S. military equipment continued to flow to Egyptian ports” after the July 3 coup overthrowing Mohamed Morsi.
The symbolism of those moves became crystal-clear in the months ahead. In early November, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Egypt and said that the country, still in the midst of a crackdown on dissent, was “on the path to democracy.” Kerry added that “the roadmap is being carried out to the best of our perception”–a reference to a referendum on a new Constitution and new elections–and that the move to suspend some military aid “is not a punishment.”
Then came January 2014. As part of a trillion-dollar spending bill passed by the Senate and House, the military aid and economic assistance to Egypt, totaling $1.5 billion, was fully restored. (The vast majority in aid–$1.3 billion–is military.)
The U.S. has plenty of reasons why it wants to keep funding the Egyptian regime. The military aid acts as a subsidy to American arms contractors, since the $1.3 billion is required to be spent on equipment made in the U.S. It guarantees continued access to the Suez Canal, a key geographic area crucial to the flow of oil. And it helps lock down Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, allowing the Jewish state to focus on other threats while continuing its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In recent years, Egypt and Israel have worked toward the same goal: weakening the rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
President Obama signed the trillion-dollar bill on January 17. All that stands between Egypt and the $1.5 billion in U.S. aid is a certification from the Obama administration that the country is keeping its relationship with the U.S. and Israel and that a future elected government will “govern democratically and implement economic reforms.”
As the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin reported, “the Obama administration has been lobbying Congress for permission to give the aid to the Egyptian government.” The bill also reverses a U.S. law that prohibits funding governments that came to power by a coup. In 1961, the Foreign Assistance Act, which bars U.S. aid to rulers who instituted coups, was passed. But provisions of the spending bill reverse that policy by allowing aid to flow to regimes that came to force by a coup d’etat. (The U.S. law on coups has been violated in the past. The U.S. secretly funded the Pinochet regime in Chile and the Honduran government after the 2009 coup.)
The moves to shore up military and economic assistance to Egypt have been met with some elite pushback. The so-called “working group” on Egypt, composed of a number of Middle East analysts and former officials from across the political spectrum,issued an open letter to President Obama on January 29. “If the United States fails to take a clear stance against Egypt’s current democratic reversal, and decides to resume suspended aid programs in the face of growing repression, your policies may reinforce this debilitating dynamic to the detriment of U.S. interests and values,” the letter reads. “We urge you to instruct Secretary of State Kerry not to certify that Egypt has met congressionally mandated conditions on democracy under current conditions.”
But the letter is likely to fall on deaf ears. As Jason Brownlee, a professor at the University of Texas who studies US-Egypt policy,told the National, “I would suspect that the civilians at the state department and Pentagon are comfortable with another military president in Egypt…They want someone who can stabilize the country and their opinion about what will be useful for stability has changed as events on the ground have changed.”
Meanwhile, Egypt’s steady march toward full-blown dictatorship continues. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders, labeled as “terrorists” with no evidence, are locked up in jail or abroad, while rank and file supporters continue to put up piecemeal and ineffective resistance to the military. The revolutionaries who sparked the January 2011 Egyptian uprising against Mubarak are also being increasingly targeted for arrest. The new Egyptian Constitution passed overwhelmingly last month, in part because those campaigning in opposition were thrown in jail. The passage of the Constitution, with 98% approving, is a requirement for U.S. aid to continue going toward the country (38% of the Egyptian population voted on the document). The document puts the military and security forces beyond reproach, and enshrines the power to try civilians in military courts.
Journalists in Egypt face increasing danger. The country is the third most dangerous in the world for the press, and after the coup, the military shut down television channels critical of its actions. Twenty journalists from Al Jazeera have been accused of “terrorism” and having links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Two of the Al Jazeera employees were arrested on December 29, and a leaked video of their ordeal was released on a private media channel that supports the military government.
The icing on the cake is the impending candidacy of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for president. The defense minister of the military, al-Sisi became de facto leader of the country after the armed forces overthrew Morsi. A cult of personality has developed around the strongman, complete with boxes of chocolate decorated with his image and military-themed weddings. Now he is poised to formally run for president of the country. On Jan. 27, 2014, al-Sisi was given the title of Field Marshal, a move foreshadowing his candidacy. Hours later, a military council announced it supported al-Sisi’s run for president.