from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Fiddling While Egypt Burns

April 01, 2013

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Life is getting increasingly difficult for Egyptians.  The New York Times ran a front page story on Sunday about what anybody who has been paying attention to Egypt already knows:  the country is running out of fuel, food, and cash.  The Egyptian Central Bank announced weeks ago that its reserves of foreign currency are down to critical minimums while sources of liquidity are drying up.  Only the most intrepid tourists are visiting Egypt, Suez Canal revenues are down 7.4 percent, there is little in the way of foreign direct investment, the International Monetary Fund is holding the line on its conditions, the Qataris have turned off the spigot of riyals, the Saudis never really turned it on, and no one else has been willing to step up with assistance.

Curiously absent from the above list is the United States, the country that has invested $77 billion in Egypt since the mid-1970s. The Obama administration has offered $1 billion in debt relief and an enterprise fund of $60 million—a paltry sum intended to help build “small and medium enterprises.”  There is also the aid commitment that Secretary of State John Kerry made during his early March visit to Cairo, which represented the economic portion of the standard aid package divvied up the usual way, $1.3 billion for the military and $250 million in economic support funds, though the amount is too small to do much economic supporting. In defense of the administration, which believes the best way to influence the Egyptians is through economic assistance, it has done perhaps the best it could under the present political environment at home that has produced fiscal cliffs, debt ceiling fights, and sequestration.

It is possible that the limited assistance that the Obama administration has offered is a function of a policy that hastens President Mohammed Morsi’s failure. That would be news to the large number of Egyptian opposition activists who believe that Washington has some sort of grand bargain with the Muslim Brothers.  Needless to say, there is neither a grand bargain nor a policy intended to bring the Egyptian government down.  The President would like to do more—Kerry was hoping to announce more than the $250 million when he was in Egypt, but Congress said no.

It seems that members of the House and Senate are either preternaturally opposed to aid, especially to Egypt and especially now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, or they are intent on changing the way the aid package has been traditionally allocated.  In the abstract, the latter would be a positive development.  Egypt has changed as have Washington’s ties with Cairo in the last four decades.  It is a good idea for the President to submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report, “describing the results of a policy review on Egypt on how to rebalance United States military and economic assistance to Egypt, analyzing the current security needs in Egypt, and summarizing all of the Foreign Military Financing contracts for the Government of Egypt carried out over the previous 10 years and describing plans for such contracts over the next 5 years,” as Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) amendment to the  Consolidated Appropriations Bill (HR 933) requires. Senator McCain (R-AZ) wants the generosity of the American taxpayer to be used to compel the Egyptians to “enforce rule of law, protect basic human rights, advance economic development in Sinai, maintain Camp David Accords, encourage [the] Egyptian government to reform internal security services (police forces) and justice sector in order to maintain public order and security.”

Who would argue with any of these provisions?  No one, but the amendments to the aid package (there are six others in addition to those of McCain and Rubio mentioned above) are not appropriate for the moment.  One would think that, given the size of this investment and the fact that Egypt is an important (some say “strategic”) ally, Washington would be leading an international effort to help pull Egypt back from the brink.  I hope that David Kirkpatrick’s article in the Times helped people understand what is going on in Egypt, but it’s much worse than he relayed.  Egypt also has a crumbling physical infrastructure, a collapsing public health system—to go along with a new discovery of polio, the highest rate of hepatitis-C in the world, out-of-control avian flu, and uncontained hoof and mouth disease—and increasing challenges to food distribution.

It cannot possibly be in the interest of the United States and the international community to allow Egypt to fail.  The country of 84 million—for better and worse—continues to influence what happens around it.  If anyone wonders what failure might look like, take a gander at the Sinai with its drug runners, human traffickers, weapons flow, al-Qaeda sympathizers, takfir groups, Palestinian militants, and angry Bedouin, or look at Port Said, which, though now under the military’s control, was anarchic for the better part of a month this winter.

President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have made a terrible hash of things.  Let’s stipulate that their political blunders have made the situation in Egypt a good deal worse.  Yet while the Brothers do not seem to be up to the task of governing Egypt (who is these days?), the United States and its partners should focus on what is important.  It may not seem right to “help Morsi or the Brothers” through new infusions of aid, but that is the wrong frame of reference.  Rather, new assistance separate from the standard aid package is a way to help Egyptians—all of them—who are becoming increasingly desperate.  If there is no relief for them forthcoming, the international community is going to come to regret that it did so little during the time of Egypt’s greatest need.