The Real Reason the U.S. Should Consider Cutting Military Aid to Egypt

It's not just about deterring the country's generals from grabbing power -- it's about demonstrating that the U.S. is making democracy a top priority in the Middle East.

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An Egyptian man walks past anti-SCAF graffiti in Cairo. (Reuters)

On June 30, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi took his oath of office, becoming Egypt's first freely elected civilian president. There seems to be, finally, a sense of forward momentum. On Friday, Morsi gave a rousing address in Tahrir square, where he repeatedly shouted, in somewhat dramatic fashion, that the people were the source of power. But, for now at least, the people aren't. The military holds the power. And, as long as it does, what's left of Egypt's faltering transition remains under threat.

All in the span of one very bad week this June, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its allies dissolved parliament, reinstated martial law, and decreed a constitutional addendum stripping the presidency of many of its powers. The military, more than a year after helping nudge out President Hosni Mubarak, had staged a confusing but seemingly masterful coup within a coup. All of this raises a difficult question: what can, or should, the United States do in response?

The United States, after all, spends over $1 billion annually in military aid to Egypt. This could give the Obama administration a degree of leverage over the military and, whether fairly or unfairly, leads many Egyptians to see the U.S. as backing the ruling generals.

The Obama administration's problems in Egypt -- a vital ally and the Arab world's most populous nation -- did not start last month. U.S. policymakers made a fateful mistake in the early days of Egypt's transition, shortly after millions of protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak. The U.S. wagered that a military-led transition would facilitate (and manage) the democratization process while safeguarding U.S. interests. In essence, it was the same Faustian bargain that had defined American policy for decades -- for example in Latin America during the Cold War or in Pakistan today --  but updated for the Arab Spring. But there was little reason to think that the Egyptian military -- itself the backbone of the Mubarak regime for nearly three decades -- would suddenly discover it believed in democracy.

The Obama administration seemed to put little public pressure on SCAF, even when the military was conducting "virginity tests" on female protesters or, in several deadly clashes, outright killing them in the streets around Tahrir Square. U.S. officials seemed to believe (or maybe they just wanted to believe, as after all we all did), that SCAF, for all its faults, was sincere in its pledge to eventually cede power and go back to the barracks.

U.S.-Egypt relations reached its lowest point in decades in February, when 16 Americans working for non-governmental organizations in Cairo were charged with dubious crimes, some facing up to five years in prison. When the Egyptian government lifted the travel ban on the accused, allowing them to leave the country, the State Department announced that military aid would resume. But the Egyptian government's NGO probe had primarily targeted Egyptian, not American, civil society organizations, which found themselves alone. The U.S. had pushed hard for its own citizens' freedom, but not for the Egyptians doing the same, pro-democracy work.

In resuming aid, the Obama administration set a dangerous precedent. The administration, along with the U.S. Congress, had threatened to suspend aid if Egypt's military did not show a genuine commitment to democracy, including "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression association... and due process of law." Yet those threats proved hollow. The Egyptian military likely saw its suspicions as confirmed; in a tense standoff over democratization, the U.S. would buckle under pressure.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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