Egypt: Cutting Off Aid and Other Options

by Wayne White

Many Americans, shocked by the appalling casualties from the crackdown ordered by Armed Forces Commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, understandably have reacted by calling for a cut-off of US aid to Egypt. Yet, doing so probably would be ineffective, further reducing Washington’s already limited influence over the Egyptian military. And since there are no genuine “good guys” amidst the confrontation between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood, the options are less clear than simply meting out one-sided punitive measures. The dynamics of the situation on the ground in Egypt mostly will determine the outcome, but still the US must join with the rest of the international community in trying to convince the Egyptian military that attempts to violently quell pro-Morsi supporters are self-defeating.

Since the early years of President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure, US aid to Egypt has declined in both real terms and as a percentage of Egypt’s annual budget. It was once as high as $3 billion; now it amounts to only $1.3 billion in military assistance. Already the Obama Administration has halted the delivery of four F-16 fighter aircraft and, yesterday, cancelled the joint US-Egyptian bi-annual “Bright Star” military exercises.  Neither measure, however, will have much of an adverse impact on the Egyptian military — especially the ability of the military and police to use force to end demonstrations and sit-ins that had disrupted a return to some measure of order and normalcy.

In fact, $1.3 billion amounts to only a little over one-tenth the aid Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have pumped into Egypt since Mr. Morsi’s ouster. Indeed, should the US take its $1.3 billion off the table, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab governments (more worried about the threat from the Muslim Brotherhood than al-Sisi’s behavior) could more than compensate the Egyptian government.

Also, the policies of most US regional allies, whether in a position to materially assist Egypt’s current government or not, are hostile toward the Brotherhood.  And none of these governments are themselves democratic. The sole exception in the region, in both respects, is moderate Islamist NATO-ally, Turkey.

It is difficult to gauge accurately the overall reaction of most Egyptians to the events of the past 24 hours. Within the population there is so much polarization and mistrust that many of the millions who took to the streets to push the military into taking action against President Morsi have mixed feelings.  Indeed, among many Christians, liberals and relatively secular Egyptians, Muslim Brotherhood attacks upon or the torching of 20 to 30 Coptic Christian churches during August 14-15 could be more chilling than the terrible loss of life in the streets at the hands of the security forces. Even the statement made by resigning liberal vice president Mohamed ElBaradei yesterday seemed to focus almost as much on his concern that “the beneficiaries” of the military crackdown are “those who call for…terrorism and the most extreme groups” as the bloodshed itself.

Al-Sisi would have been wise to have tolerated ongoing Brotherhood demonstrations and gone about the business of arranging a return to civilian rule on schedule.  Instead, the military-dominated interim government has shown imprudence, impatience and a dangerous penchant for ultimately self-destructive bouts of violent intimidation driven by its frustration over sit-ins disrupting a number of Egyptian urban centers.

There are extremist elements within the Brotherhood probably hoping to goad the military into just such bloody shows of force in order to sully the government, score points on the international scene and inflame their own ranks — as has now happened. Sensing this, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius today urged Egyptian authorities to exercise “maximum restraint” lest “extremist groups take advantage of the situation.”

By late Thursday, however, many Brotherhood demonstrators already were chanting: “End to peace,” so more violence is likely during the Brotherhood’s “Friday of Anger” today as masses of pro-Brotherhood protestors move toward and fill the planned demonstration site at Cairo’s Ramses Square. The authorities appear ready to use gunfire if there are more attacks on government buildings (quite possibly including the city’s main railway station adjacent to that square).

And with the Brotherhood now in a vengeful mood, a dangerous pattern of cyclical violence could set in.  If such a situation takes hold with round after round of tit for tat violence, neither the US and the West nor the UN would likely be able to have much success in bringing matters back under control anytime soon.  Hopefully, it is not already too late to avoid such a self-perpetuating scenario.

Thus it is urgent that Washington and other governments use whatever limited clout they still have with the Egyptian military to hammer home the message that lashing out only will provoke the Muslim Brotherhood to respond likewise. Convincing al-Sisi and other senior officers that they are acting against their own best interests is more important than high-profile gestures of disapproval that have far more resonance with domestic audiences back home than in the halls of government or the streets of Egypt.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.