Despite Calls to Cut Aid, American Influence in Egypt Limited

Reducing American assistance for a military that is suppressing Islamist dissent might not affect its behavior.

The pyramids of Giza appear in the distance as an American C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft flies over Cairo, Egypt during an exercise, October 15, 2009
The pyramids of Giza appear in the distance as an American C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft flies over Cairo, Egypt during an exercise, October 15, 2009 (USAF/Staff Sergeant Jacob N. Bailey)

Last month, Kentucky’s libertarian senator, Rand Paul, introduced a motion to suspend American aid to Egypt, proposing to divert the money to domestic infrastructure programs. A longtime opponent of foreign aid in general, Paul, a Republican, pushed the resolution at a time of immense political turmoil in the Arab country. Just three weeks earlier, the Egyptian army had unseated Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to the relief of millions of Egyptians who opposed his Muslim Brotherhood’s rule.

The amendment failed. Just twelve other senators supported it. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Bob Corker of Tennessee, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, all of whom are influential members in the Senate when it comes to foreign policy and national-security issues, were among those voting it down.

However, after a particularly bloody week in which hundreds of Morsi’s supporters were killed by Egyptian security forces while removing demonstrations from the streets of Cairo, those four senators apparently had a change of heart.

In contrast to their positions two weeks ago, they now believe suspending $1.5 billion in annual American assistance to the Egyptian government is an appropriate response to the bloodshed.

McCain, appearing on CNN’s State of the Union program on Sunday, was predictably the most vocal about his newfound position. In the process, he blamed President Barack Obama, his rival in the 2008 presidential election, for failing to push Egypt’s interim leaders toward a compromise with their Islamist opponents. “We have no credibility,” he alleged.

We do have influence. But when you don’t use that influence, then you do not have that influence.

The veteran senator is not alone. Corker, who is also the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, has adopted a similar point of view. Reviewing and possibly cutting off America’s vast assistance package to Egypt is a viable option, he told ABC News’ This Week. This is a far cry from his stance just last month when he stepped on to the Senate floor and described Paul’s amendment as harmful to American national interests.

The Obama Administration is clearly feeling the heat on the Egypt issue where it has otherwise treaded carefully — first, by refusing to make a designation as to whether Morsi’s ouster was in fact a coup and then by keeping the aid spigot open.

At the same time, the president has tried to use whatever leverage he has over Egypt’s generals in order to tamp down violence against Morsi’s supporters. Obama canceled a joint American-Egyptian military exercise that was supposed to take place this year, in addition to holding off on the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets. To a growing chorus in Congress, however, these steps have proven to be insufficient.

Despite the calls for an aid cutoff, the likelihood of such a move affecting the generals’ behavior — like moderating their crackdown or releasing jailed Muslim Brotherhood officials — may be lower than the senators think.

$1.5 billion in donations every year is a huge morale booster for the Egyptian military and the symbol of a deep American-Egyptian military relationship that has developed since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

But the funds are a small drop in the bucket compared to what Egypt’s allies in the Persian Gulf are willing to provide. Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, on a visit to France, vowed that his country and others in the Muslim world would step in and provide Egypt’s interim government with any money that Western nations might cut. Clearly, the Arab Gulf kingdoms are far more comfortable with the Egyptian military governing the country than a Muslim Brotherhood movement that could potentially ignite unrest in their own realms.

Sadly for the Obama Administration, the United States appear to have little say in which direction Egypt’s democratic transition will go — if such a transition is still possible.

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