There is no shortage of advice in the United States about how the Obama administration should approach Egypt. The familiar ring of policy prescriptions bouncing around the Beltway and beyond is either a testament to a lack of creativity or limited leverage or the return of some version of the political order that prevailed under Mubarak. Take, for example, Saturday’s lead editorial in the Washington Post called, “The U.S. Must Confront the Egyptian Military’s Push for Authoritarian Rule.” It could have been written in 2007 after Hosni Mubarak pushed through a series of constitutional reforms. In fact, “Constitutional Autocracy” from March 2007 must have been a template of sorts for Saturday’s piece. Don’t get me wrong, the editorial board’s criticism of Egypt’s draft constitution is spot on, but its policy prescriptions seem a bit tattered. According to the folks over on 15th Street, now that it is clear that Egypt is not on the road to democracy (as if that has not been fairly obvious for some time) the Obama administration should “suspend aid and cooperation with the regime until it frees political prisoners and adopts a genuine democratic path.”
In the collective vainglorious attempt to “get Egypt right” there is apparently a consensus within the policy community that suspending some part or all of American assistance is the way to go. That is, of course, until the administration is confronted with the complicated reality that is Egypt. If there ever was a time when Washington could have made a strong case for taking the Egyptians to task and cutting assistance it was immediately after the July 3 coup d’etat. The military’s coup meant that, pursuant to Section 7008 of the Foreign Assistance Act, the United States may not provide, “directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” It could not be clearer, but the Obama administration has studiously avoided using the term “coup,” despite in fact having decided to delay the delivery of some important weapons systems. But this seems to have been intentionally done in a way that would have little or no impact on the Egyptian military’s ability to operate. Even so, it made the officers angry.
The history of docking Egypt’s aid is not long. In 2002, George W. Bush refused an Egyptian request for supplemental security assistance because the Egyptian-American academic and activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, had been imprisoned after being convicted of a variety of dodgy and politically motivated charges. Less than four months after Bush refused the request, Egypt’s Court of Cassation coincidentally overturned Dr. Saad’s conviction on appeal. This would seem to suggest that actually withholding aid works, though, like everything when it comes to Egypt and U.S.-Egypt relations, the reality is not so straightforward. First, President Bush was not cutting aid, he was telling Hosni Mubarak he could not have more assistance. Second, like Obama’s delayed delivery of military equipment, Bush’s rejection of additional aid seems to prove the rule that Egypt’s military assistance package is, well, largely untouchable. For all of the Bush administration’s emphasis on democratic change, it never actually cut Egypt’s aid. Congress tried a few times, but the administration always signed a national security waiver restoring the assistance. President Obama has not actually reduced the dollar amount of aid flowing to Egypt, he’s merely held up weapons already paid for in 2010. Both actions must have stung the Egyptians, but not that much.
It is abundantly clear that the United States is not willing to cut aid in any meaningful sense, a fact that undermines any pretense of leverage. This is a problem, but it does not leave the United States without options. If the White House is looking for a constructive approach, the President would do well to start out with his own advice. In a very good speech that went largely ignored in the Arab world, but was eagerly anticipated in Washington, President Obama made the following statement:
…We must proceed with a sense of humility. It’s not America that put people on the streets of Tunis or Cairo—it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine the outcome….We will speak out for a set of core principles—principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months.
He went on to list Washington’s opposition to violence and repression and his administration’s support for freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion. President Obama also stressed the importance of “equality for men and women under the rule of law” and the right for Arabs to choose their own leaders.
I can hear my buddy and colleague, Marc Lynch, groaning. He is particularly allergic to “magic words” that will make the Arab world democratic. I take his point, but let’s not give short shrift to this idea. The evidence is largely anecdotal, I admit, but during the Bush years, the president’s forthright calls for freedom and democracy in the Middle East forced leaders like Hosni Mubarak to position themselves as reformers, which, in turn, allowed activists to pursue their reform agendas in new ways. This helped change the discourse in the region to one that focused on political reform. Activists who were hostile to the United States and to Bush in particular admitted at the time that the United States was helping them.
The political dynamics in the region are, of course, vastly different from what they were a decade ago, which means that magical words may not have the impact they once did. It’s worth trying, though. Almost immediately after uttering the words cited above in May 2011, President Obama forgot them, remaining largely silent while Mohammed Morsi violated the revolutionary principles of Tahrir Square. The administration has been no better when it comes to the military-backed interim government and its de facto leader, Major-General Abdel Fatah al Sisi. The president made a tough statement from Martha’s Vineyard on August 14 after the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Rabaa al Adawiya Square and docked some military aid, but the Secretary of State—as the Post’s editorial writers correctly point out—keeps declaring against all evidence that the Egyptians are faithfully following the roadmap intended to put Egypt on a democratic trajectory. No one believes this stuff, yet the Egyptian leadership is getting away with it.
Maybe the Egyptians would think twice about making a mockery of their own commitments (and America’s top diplomat) if the President took a page from his predecessor’s playbook and called the Egyptians out.