The U.S. sends about $1.2 billion in annual military
aid to Egypt. The tanks resting in Cairo's streets, the fighter jets
that buzzed Tahrir Square on Sunday, perhaps even the officers' salaries
are all somewhat reliant on the U.S. not revoking its aid. That's
exactly what White House Press Secretary subtly threatened on Friday,
telling a reporter, "We will be reviewing our assistance posture based
on events that take place in the coming days."
Egypt is a close
U.S. ally, but the Egyptian military is especially close. It often
coordinates directly with the Pentagon, where several senior Egyptian
officers happened to be visiting when protests first broke out last
week. The U.S. and Egyptian militaries hold massive joint exercises
every other year under the name Operation Bright Star.
For years, Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, whom Mubarak appointed on
Saturday as the country's first vice president since 1981, served as what the New Yorker describes as "the main conduit between the United States and Mubarak."
that the military occupies Egypt's major cities and has taken the place
of the now-absent police, it, perhaps more than the protester or
Mubarak himself, stands to decide the country's fate. Whether it
suppresses the protesters, as Mubarak would surely like, or joins those
protesters in forcing Mubarak out, the 450,000-man Egyptian Army could
probably end the country's deadlock in hours. So far, it has only
protected city centers from looting and hedged somewhat in favor of the
protesters, mostly through shows of general support and a refusal to
crack down. But eventually someone in Egypt will have to act, and it
will probably be the military.
As Michael Wahid Hanna explained
at TheAtlantic.com, the military will ultimately do whatever best
serves its own interests. That it has so far failed to act suggests that
its leadership isn't sure how to measure the potential risks and
rewards of giving Mubarak his crackdown, seizing power in a coup, or
ousting Mubarak to set up a transitional, non-military government until
elections can be held. The final choice on that list is of course the
preferred option for Obama and the Egyptian people. Anything else risks
only setting Egypt back. But the most attractive option to Egypt's
generals may be to simply take power themeslves, just as their
predecessors did in the 1952 military coup that established the current
This is where the U.S. can play a role. So far, the
military has behaved responsibly. By clearly tying that $1.2 billion in
annual aid to specific conditions -- use live fire on protesters, for
example, and the generals can kiss their U.S.-funded villas
goodbye -- the Obama administration can strongly discourage bad
behavior. But that's not going to be enough to get the military on board
with democracy, which would almost certainly lead to it losing much of
its vast political power. To deter the military from taking over again,
the U.S. will likely have to threaten withdrawing every cent of its aid
package. Suleiman is already within striking distance of Mubarak's job.
It will take a very strong disincentive to restrain him.