from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt’s Gotta Have It: Spending Bill Ambivalence

January 20, 2014

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Last week the Congress passed the omnibus spending bill for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.  In one sense, this was very good news as it staves off a budget stalemate and another possible government shutdown until after the November elections.  Still, there was not much for anyone of any political persuasion to like about the bill, which seems to be a combination of unnecessary spending and gratuitous cuts. Many Egypt watchers in Washington also found a reason to groan buried deep within the 1,582-page legislation.  After the Obama administration delayed delivery of some military equipment because of the July 3 coup d’état, the Congress has paved the way for a full resumption of the assistance program to Egypt including $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million of economic assistance.   The spending bill may have done away with the national security waiver that made it easy for an administration to overcome congressional efforts to withhold aid (see Rice, Condoleezza circa 2007) in favor of criteria that Cairo must meet to receive assistance, but it is back to business as usual.  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on State Department, foreign operations, and related programs, tried to make the best of the spending bill declaring that it represented the “toughest conditions the Congress has imposed on aid to the Egyptian military.”  This seems a rather low bar given that Washington has never actually imposed any conditions on military aid to Egypt.  What Leahy does not mention, of course, is the fact that the new law exempts Egypt from Section 7008 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Law, which says that the United States will not aid governments that come to power as a result of coups d’ état.

Smart people have already weighed in on the problematic details of the legislation and the outmoded nature of the U.S.-Egypt relationship—arguments to which I am sympathetic—but I am not persuaded that either reconfiguring the aid or penalizing the Egyptians is the best course right now.  This is not to suggest, as legions of Egyptians have claimed, that the military’s intervention last summer was not a coup.  It is also not to say that Egypt is on the right trajectory.  Whatever the best intentions of some Egyptians, the rationalizations of others, and even the likely fulfillment of the political roadmap that the military and the interim government promulgated last summer, Egypt’s future seems to be an authoritarian one. Given the current instability and the very real prospect for Egypt to experience demonstrations and violence for some time, the Egyptian leadership will continue to use authoritarian measures to try to establish political control. Still, there are two compelling reasons to go back to business as usual on military assistance, if only for the time being.

First, if the United States is going to reconfigure its aid to the Egyptians, Washington must determine what it wants in Egypt and come to an understanding with Cairo about the future of the bilateral relationship.  There does not seem much point in changing the terms of the assistance package without a clear strategy in U.S.-Egypt relations. To do otherwise would make Washington’s approach more incoherent than it already appears to be and sow further ill will in Cairo.  Second, the United States has security interests in Egypt and the aid package is, for better or worse, the way in which Washington has bought access to Egyptian airspace, logistical support, expedited transit through the Suez Canal, and bolstered Egypt-Israel peace. There is nothing that says that the United States must use its aid this way, but these issues are important in the present, which also happens to be the short-run timeframe through which American presidents, senators, and representatives look at the world.  They simply do not want to risk placing these interests in jeopardy.

Everyone wants Egyptians to realize the democratic ideals of the January 25 uprising and many would like for the United States to be able to help it achieve that inspirational goal, yet that is all quite unlikely right now. Critics of the omnibus spending legislation (and administration policy, more generally) who want the United States to dock the military aid to modify the Egyptian military’s behavior are advocating an approach that places far more weight on American diplomacy and leverage than actually exists. As noted above, all the indications run in the opposite direction of a democratic transition and to the extent that Egyptians define their struggle as an existential one, what Americans say or do does not matter. Moreover, in the apparent trauma of Mohammed Morsi’s year-long tenure and the violent aftermath, many in Egypt who were thought to be supporters of democracy have instead rallied around nationalist jingoism in the name of anti-terrorism rather than encouraging an inclusive, consensual approach to governance. Critics could make an argument that precisely because the Egyptians have so clearly veered from the democratic principles that they have vowed to uphold, now is the time to take punitive action and ramp up democracy promotion.  I do not want the United States to be complicit in enabling the worst instincts of the Egyptian leadership and its allies among the elite, but it is hard to see how punishing the military and/or devoting resources to democracy and governance programs will do much to alter the direction of politics in Egypt at this point.

The basic problem in Egypt for American policymakers, legislators, and analysts is this:  No one has ever been able to answer how the United States protects its national security interests in the short run while it waits for that long run of a more stable, democratic country to emerge.  It is important to remember when looking for a solution to this conundrum that the long run is made up of a lot of short runs.  Perhaps Egypt is no longer as important to the national security of the United States.  Perhaps Washington needs to review thoroughly its entire approach to the region. Those are good debates waiting to happen. Let’s have them. In the meantime while those issues remain unsettled, Washington’s default will be to protect its security interests regardless of what is happening inside of a country like Egypt.