Mixed Messages: The Withholding of Military Aid From Egypt

 

On October 9, 2013 the Obama Administration, after a review of the military aid to Egypt, has suspended approximately half a billion dollars of military aid to the Egyptian military. The President commissioned the review after the military overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in a popularly backed coup d’état in early July 2013 (the term has been debated and has been called a “revolution” by many Egyptians, but the actual overthrow was initiated by the military and this the term “coup” will be used here). The United States has tied the cut in aid to the violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters who opposed the coup and had established sit-ins and clashed with pro-military protesters. Over a thousand have been killed in the clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and the military and police forces since the crackdown began.

The United States has provided Egypt with approximately $1.3 billion in military aid since the 1979 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. The aid comes primarily in the form of loans and deliveries of military hardware. The suspension of aid has halted deliveries of US-made F-16 jet fighters, Apache helicopters, Harpoon Missiles, and M1A1 Abrams tank parts. In addition, $260 million in cash aid has been withheld, and a $300 million loan cancelled.

Traditionally, the US military aid has been used as a form of support for the Egyptian military and to maintain strong Egyptian-US ties, in addition to ensuring that the Egyptian government adheres to the terms of its peace treaty with Israel. This is the first time since the aid began that the United States has cut parts of it. However, the US State Department has assured that the cut is only temporary, to send a message of the Obama Administrations disapproval over how the Egyptian Military has handled the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and it’s supporters. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized this, stating that it was not a “withdrawal from [the US-Egyptian] relationship,” and that the US would continue to push the interim government in Cairo towards democratic processes.

The Egyptian military for its part criticized the move, calling it an unjust attempt by the US to manipulate the country’s politics, and that “Egypt will take domestic decisions independently and without external influences,” according to Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel Atty.

The US has made certain that the temporary aid cut does not include money going to combating terrorism by the Egyptian forces, including the money going towards aiding the Egyptian government’s fight to suppress a low level Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula.

The cuts have been lambasted by the Israelis, who see it as having the potential to hurt their subtle ally in the Egyptian military, and the Saudis, who have already announced that they would match every dollar cut by the US with an increase in aid of their own. These countries have been in favor of the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, as they see the Egyptian military as a more willing partner than the Brotherhood, who has ties to many opposition groups in Saudi Arabia and the military Hamas organization in Gaza.

These cuts have a very limited impact on the Egyptians, and the weakness of them sends a mixed message to the Egyptian Military. While the US is using it to express disapproval at the bloody crackdowns, the limited nature ensures that the Egyptian military is not being significantly threatened by a long-term cut in aid. On the flip side, it fails to give a vote of confidence to the transition process and the Egyptian military, which has long been a stalwart US ally in the region, and could push it to find other benefactors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who’s investment would not be tied to democratic reform. The use of US aid as leverage is clearly very limited and illustrates how little political influence the United States government currently has in Cairo.

The aid restrictions will likely not last long, as the United States has a vested interest in providing the Egyptian military with weaponry. Despite its reluctance to support the military as it uses violence against its political adversaries, the military is the primary political actor in Egypt and has a wide degree of public support from the Egyptian people. The US will begrudgingly continue to work with the Egyptian military, supporting it as it combats al-Qaeda linked militants in the Sinai and other parts of Egypt. The US’ message to Egypt is weak and somewhat mixed in this latest move, and will likely not have a significant impact on Cairo’s political decisions.

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