Why Obama Won't Cut Aid to the Egyptian Military

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Mohamed Elsayyed

August 18, 2013
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Perhaps the most mystifying thing about the cosmetic US response to Wednesday’s massacre in Egypt is the reluctance for the US to use its massive aid leverage over Cairo’s generals.

Former diplomats and foreign policy professionals in Washington are often quick to say the situation is more complicated than a simple aid cutoff will allow. But after President Obama responded to one of the bloodiest days in recent Egyptian history by cancelling a scheduled military exercise, even those cautious policy practitioners were stunned by his meekness.

“If I’m an Egyptian general, I take notice and think President Obama is trying to take the least painful step to demonstrate to various constituencies in the US that he means what he says about democracy in Egypt,” said Amy Hawthorne, who until recently was an Egypt policy official at the State Department, “but only the least painful step, so we won’t take him that seriously.”

Obama’s cancellation of US participation in the biannual Bright Star training exercise is actually out of step with what Washington typically does when displeased with Egypt, two and a half years after the downfall of longtime dictator and US client Hosni Mubarak. That is: it’s a concrete step, as opposed to a rhetorical expression of regret and disappointment. It follows on last month’s decision to halt the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian military.

“The fact that [Obama] has taken an assertive step forward is welcome,” said Tarek Radwan, an analyst at the influential Atlantic Council, “it’s just simply not enough.”

Radwan’s perspective reflects a crystallizing sense in the Washington foreign policy community that Wednesday’s slaughter — 525 Egyptians dead in a single day — marks a turning point in the Egyptian tumult and exposes the rudderlessness of the Obama administration.

Ever since the generals ousted Mohamed Morsi, the erratic and authoritarian president who was nevertheless Egypt’s first elected leader, the Obama administration has calculated that it needed to stay engaged with the generals in order to maintain any US leverage over the course of Egyptian events. They laboriously maintained — with the acquiescence of most of Congress — that there was never a coup, which by law would prompt a cutoff of aid. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, even made the extraordinary statement that the military leadership that the generals who still hold Morsi incommunicado were “restoring democracy.

Paramount among US concerns was that the military not massacre Egyptian civilians. Secretary of defense Chuck Hagel talked almost daily with his counterpart, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, urging him to “take steps to prevent further bloodshed and loss of life,” as a typical phone call on July 27 went.

But now the further bloodshed has happened, in direct contravention of the stated urging of Washington.

Yet at the Pentagon on Thursday, the message remained the same. While the US deplores the violence and urges “restraint”, Hagel — who spoke with Sisi Thursday — believes “that maintaining an open line of communication with General Sisi is very important”, said top spokesman George Little.

“All the things the US has repeatedly, publicly, called for, by our most senior officials, haven’t happened,” Hawthorne said, shortly after Obama’s statement on Egypt. “So why are they still calling for them?”

The US has massive amounts of leverage over Egypt, in the form of approximately $1.5bn worth of annual aid. Yet for a variety of reasons, it does not exercise that leverage — something several Egypt experts say substantively weakens the credibility of the warnings that Washington periodically issues to Cairo, contributing to events like Wednesday’s massacre.

Republished from: AlterNet