Cutting American Aid for Egypt’s Military Shortsighted

The United States have no reason to make life harder for Egypt’s generals now they’re in control again.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan, former chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, walk up the stairs of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, February 11, 2012
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan, former chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, walk up the stairs of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, February 11, 2012 (Department of Defense/D. Myles Cullen)

Threatening to cut American aid for Egypt’s military after it deposed the Arab nation’s elected president on Wednesday could harm its interests in the region. If anything, the United States should expand their support for Egypt which is a key ally in maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Middle East.

America’s top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, suggested in an interview with CNN that was taped a day before the army removed Mohamed Morsi from office, “If this were to be seen as a coup, that would limit our ability to have the kind of relationship we think we need with the Egyptian armed forces.”

On Friday, after Morsi had been deposed, Republican senator John McCain, an advocate of American military support for “Arab Spring” uprisings, said the aid should be cut. “We cannot repeat the same mistakes that we made in other times of our history by supporting removal of freely elected governments,” he argued.

The United States quietly backed military coups in Asia and Latin America during the Cold War when leftist governments where replaced by rightist dictatorships. Similarly, it provided training and weapons to Egypt’s army after the country signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979 despite its lack of democracy. America’s interests in Egypt — which include access to the Suez Canal and preserving it as an influence for stability and Sunni dominance in the Middle East to counter both radical Islamism and Shia Iran — clearly trumped its values. There’s no reason for that to change.

American law may prohibit the continuation of $1.3 billion in yearly aid for Egypt’s army if it has participated in a coup d’état; threatening to take it away would be counterproductive. As Adam Garfinkle argued in The American Interest on Thursday, rather than castigating Egypt’s generals, “We should be assuring them that we’re trying to put together an economic bailout to feed the people and help them put folks back to work.”

Despite previous loans from Libya and Qatar, Egypt is struggling to meet a financing gap “of perhaps $20 billion a year,” wrote David P. Goldman at PJ Media the same day. It is running short on food and fuel while foreign investment has dwindled and tourists largely stay away. The military might be able to alleviate Egyptians’ suffering when it is “able to count on the support of Saudi Arabia,” which abhors the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the United States. If the United States pulled their support, the transitional government, and by implication the army, would be ill pressed to maintain stability which could give rise to more radical forces like the Salafist al-Nour Party.

Egypt’s military doesn’t seek overt power — it never has — when it remains the ultimate source of authority in a country that lacks strong civil and political institutions to balance it. If the generals were formally in charge, they could be held accountable for the myriad of economic and financial problems the country faces which no government, civilian or military, is likely to resolve in the short term. Indeed, they were after Hosni Mubarak resigned in early 2011 and before Morsi was elected in June of last year. Nothing suggests they care to repeat that experience. The army would be more comfortable controlling events behind the façade of a transitional government, as the one currently led by the former chief justice Adli Mansour, or a newly-elected one. That suits the United States just fine.

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