Cutting U.S. aid to Egypt called 'lose-lose'
CAIRO — Experts here and in the United States say Washington's decision to slash aid to Egypt will do little beyond damaging a critical alliance of more than three decades.
It has sparked fresh anti-U.S. sentiment among Egyptians who have questioned American intentions for months.
Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said President Obama's goal in cutting the aid is “unclear.”
“This highly symbolic move is unlikely to alter the behavior of Egyptian leaders and is only likely to sow mistrust between Cairo and Washington,” he said.
Eric Trager, an Egypt expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls it “a lose-lose proposition” for the United States.
After months of bipartisan pressure, officials last week punished Egypt's military for its July overthrow of Mohamed Morsy, a former Muslim Brotherhood official elected as Egypt's president in June 2012.
Morsy's ouster followed nationwide protests against what most Egyptians believed was an ineffectual, increasingly authoritarian regime intent on establishing an Islamist state.
Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdel Atty said the decision “raises serious questions about readiness to provide stable strategic support to Egyptian security programs amid threats and terrorism challenges.”
For more than three decades, the United States provided billions in aid annually to Egypt; of its most recent $1.5 billion payment, $1.3 billion was earmarked for the military.
Much of that money never reaches Cairo, however. Instead, it goes directly to U.S. military contractors that supply the Egyptian army.
The Obama administration has frozen millions in aid —including $260 million in cash assistance — and withheld 10 Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 tank kits and Harpoon anti-ship missiles promised to Egypt.
It previously suspended delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and canceled “Bright Star,” a biannual joint military exercise.
Secretary of State John Kerry insisted the aid cut is not a “withdrawal from our relationship.” He said aid might resume if Egypt's interim government enacts an acceptable constitution and holds free elections.
Since Morsy's ouster, Egypt has witnessed some of its worst civilian violence.
Police and soldiers bloodily crushed two Islamist sit-ins in the capital, and more than 1,000 people have been killed in ongoing protests.
A growing insurgency is under way in the Sinai Peninsula. Militant Islamists – some linked to al-Qaida – have attacked security forces; last week, they hit the main satellite communications dish in Cairo with rocket-propelled grenades.
Morsy's opponents contend that he allowed those insurgents to gather and train in the Sinai.
At the same time, popular anger with America has steadily risen over what many Egyptians say was inexplicable support for Morsy, the Brotherhood and the “Islamization” of their country.
“Let American aid go to hell!” screamed a banner headline in the Tahrir newspaper, which supports the military and is anti-Brotherhood.
“Cutting military aid to Egypt is an arrogant counter-productive action!” Egyptian billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris posted on Twitter. “Do not underestimate the pride of the Egyptian people.”
The decision likely will increase strong public support for Lt. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the defense minister who led Morsy's ouster. Sisi, 53, studied at the Army War College in Carlisle; some Egyptians consider him a presidential contender.
For certain, the partial suspension of aid will “sour an important strategic relationship while alienating the critical mass of Egyptians who are strongly backing the military,” said Trager, the Washington Institute fellow.
“It won't move the Egyptian military in a more democratic direction, because the military is currently engaged in an existential conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
“A better strategy would be keeping our powder dry — using the military aid as leverage for encouraging the military to accept democratic rule at a later time, when the political atmosphere in Egypt might be more ripe for this kind of initiative.”
For 34 years, Cairo and Washington have built close ties — particularly between their militaries —following a treaty between Egypt and Israel, which fought four wars from 1948 to 1973.
Aid is widely considered a reward for Egypt's commitment to that treaty.
The United States benefited by having Egypt as a reliable ally in regional policy and in anti-terrorism efforts.
In a surprising turn, Israel lobbied Washington the hardest to maintain the aid. Israel sees long-term peace with Egypt as a cornerstone of its defense, explained Hisham Kassem, a prominent Egyptian publisher and human rights activist.
“Any sanctions on Egypt will be seen as jeopardizing the security of Israel,” Kassem said.
Keeping Egypt's military strong is crucial as “the region falls back into bloody ethnic conflicts,” he said. As proof, he points to the spread of Syria's civil war to surrounding countries and the unrest in Libya — countries whose armies are tribal or nonexistent.
Atty, the foreign ministry spokesman, said Egypt will not be influenced by outside forces and will secure its “vital needs … namely those related to its national security.”
That raises a different concern for Washington — that Egypt might look to its former ally, Russia, or to China or another strategic partner to replace U.S. money and influence.
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at email@example.com.