Why Did We Suspend Aid to Egypt, Again?

America’s confused, half-hearted policy toward Cairo has never been more adrift.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps aboard his aircraft after meeting with members of Egypt's government in Cairo on November 3. (Reuters)

John Kerry felt more threatened by his own administration's partial aid "cut" to Egypt than Egypt's generals did. Or so it seemed. In a visit to Cairo on November 3, America's top diplomat insisted that the "aid issue is a very small issue," as if to tell Egyptians not to worry—that it was something the U.S. had to do against its will, and that this slap on the wrist, like all the previous ones, too, would pass.

What was more concerning, however, was that Kerry felt the need to heap an inordinate amount of praise on Egypt's military rulers, suggesting either a great deal of cynicism or the possibility that he hadn't been briefed on Egyptian politics for weeks on end. "The roadmap is being carried out to the best of our perception," Kerry said, referring to the military's timetable for drafting a constitution and holding elections. "The roadmap [is moving] in the direction that everybody has been hoping for," he added. In reality, Egypt, on almost any conceivable political indicator, is more repressive today than it was under the Mubarak regime. The sheer ferocity of the post-coup crackdown continues, with a slate of repressive laws recently announced in the guise of Egypt's "war on terrorism."

Presumably, this is why U.S. officials—recognizing the dangerous path Egypt was traveling down—felt compelled to announce some sort of change in the aid relationship. But, even then, the aid "cut"—which is itself a misnomer since the aid was always likely to resume—was largely symbolic, with little meaningful impact on the military. An aid cut, to be effective, needs to change the calculus of Egypt's generals. But, in this case, there was little at stake: all essential aid would continue to flow (and one of the army's biggest perks—"cashflow financing"—would be unaffected).

In case there was any doubt, senior U.S. officials went out of their way to belittle the aid cut during the policy rollout, admitting it would have little impact, and perhaps wasn't even designed to have an impact in the first place. It was an odd thing to watch. Still, some held out hope that, while far from ideal, the aid suspension—which included delaying the delivery of various weapons systems—was at least a start. The administration could decide to do more at a later date, if necessary. As Sharanbir Grewal wrote, "With a partial suspension, the United States now has a wider range of options to use for leverage, from cutting additional aid to reinstating part or all of the suspended aid."

As it turned out, though, the administration's October decision was the final, underwhelming salvo before a return to business as usual. The Obama administration's heart wasn't in it. The Egyptian army knew full well that American threats were never quite credible. Instead, the administration split the middle, offering another confused sort-of-but-not-really measure that seemed to capture the worst of both worlds—alienating pro-army Egyptians while accomplishing nothing.

Which raises the question: What was the point? It's a difficult question to answer because it remains unclear what, if anything, U.S. policy toward Egypt actually is. As Peter Mandaville and I argued in a recent Brookings Doha Center paper, an initial aid cut—particularly a partial one—would mean little if it was a one-off divorced from a longer-term strategy. Any aid cut would have to be coordinated with European nations and other donors in order to maximize leverage. Sticks would then need to be followed by carrots in the form of large-scale financial incentives, if certain political benchmarks were met. In other words, deciding on whether to suspend aid would have only been the beginning.

But already, just a mere month after the aid suspension, the Obama administration has, apparently, lost interest. National Security Advisor Susan Rice recently led a Middle East policy review in which Egypt did not figure prominently. Far from articulating any coherent strategy, the objective seemed to be to avoid getting any more entangled in the Middle East. "We can't just be consumed 24/7 by one region, as important as it is," Rice explained to The New York Times. In effect, this was a restatement of what U.S. policy already had been—before a summer of being dragged into various Middle East crises, including a near-military intervention in Syria.

More recently, Ben Rhodes, Rice's deputy, tried to rationalize the new (old) approach, providing an intellectual framework for doing less: "If you try to make everyone happy, you inevitably make people unhappy," Rhodes told David Ignatius. And then: "It's our fault, no matter what happens." In a phrase, Rhodes had shifted the blame, as well as the responsibility. But across the region, there were always other choices available to us, and they were ours to make—or, in the case of Egypt, not make.

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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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