With a civil war raging in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a deadlock and Iraq returning to sectarian violence, the last thing the United States seem to need is another diplomatic headache in the Middle East. Yet now the Obama Administration has announced that it will suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly military aid to Egypt, this is precisely what America may get.
After a lengthy and at times confusing process that was designed to review America’s assistance to Egypt after the military removed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi from office in July, the administration finally rolled out its new policy: most of the aid for Egypt’s armed forces is suspended until an inclusive democracy is restored to the country.
The decision caught many lawmakers in Washington DC off guard, some of whom had vocally pressed the administration to continue sending Egypt’s military the equipment and funding it has received since it signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979, despite the ongoing crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood activists and officials.
Others, including Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the committee responsible for funding the State Department, complained that the policy shift did not go far enough.
Even Israel, America’s closest partner in the Middle East, appears to be cagey of the aid cutoff. Some Israeli officials, speaking without attribution, voiced their concern that the suspension might send exactly the wrong message to Egypt’s interim government at a time when the Egyptian-Israelian peace agreement is as vital to regional security as it has ever been. Gilad Erdan, the Jewish nation’s civil defense minister, acknowledged as much on Israel radio a day after the announcement was made. “Certainly it can be confirmed that we had been troubled by how decisions of this kind were liable to be interpreted in Egypt and of course the risk of consequences for relations with Israel,” he said.
It should be noted that while the United States have scaled back their military assistance, other aid will continue to stream into the coffers of Egypt’s military. Counterterrorism assistance, for instance, is left untouched, as is the American-Egyptian training program that has solidified the defense relationship between the two countries through the last thirty years. Senior American officials have been adamant that the bilateral relationship remains crucial for the security of both nations and that the suspension will be lifted once the interim government takes the necessary steps toward democratic reform.
In the short term, President Barack Obama’s decision to cut military aid to Egypt will no doubt rankle officials in Cairo who are quite sensitive to the impression that innocent civilians are being arrested and killed by the security forces. Egyptian defense and foreign affairs officials have repeatedly referred to those arrests as part of a nationwide counterterrorism campaign against those in the Muslim Brotherhood and the wider Islamist movement who are attacking police officers and soldiers.
In the long-term, the suspension is unlikely to hurt broader ties between Egypt and the United States, nor will it sever contacts between the militaries of both countries. Defense secretary Chuck Hagel will continue to consult with Egypt’s army chief General Abdul Fatah Sisi on a variety of security issues that concern both governments, such as border security and ongoing counterterrorism operations against militants in the Sinai Peninsula. The relationship will survive, regardless of some harsh back and forth language in the press.
The real ramifications for the United States could come from their Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, many of whom are already questioning whether the Obama Administration truly appreciates the political turmoil that is going on in the region. Saudi Arabia is effectively working against American policy in Egypt, having promised to compensate the interim government in Cairo for whatever financial assistance the United States might cut. While America and its European allies want an inclusive Egyptian democracy that is tolerant of individual and minority rights, the monarchies in the Persian Gulf want a solid and reliable ally in Cairo that they can work with.