Brendan Smialowski / Reuters

In the new Egypt, American aid isn’t what it used to be

Members of Congress have chastised Cairo for its undemocratic ways, but it is unclear whether President Sisi cares

Less than 24 hours before an Egyptian criminal court handed down long prison terms to three Al Jazeera journalists, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood beside Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri. Kerry spoke hopefully of resuming the two countries’ longstanding alliance in the wake of the rocky period that has followed the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

“We will work hard to augment what is a longstanding and deep partnership between the United States and Egypt, recognizing that we both have things to do that we can do better and that we both will work to do so,” Kerry said.

He reflected positively on his meetings Shukri and President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former defense minister who led the coup that ousted his predecessor, top Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader.

“I think we really found ourselves on a similar page of changes that have yet to be made, promises that have yet to be fulfilled, but of a serious sense of purpose and commitment by both of us to try to help achieve those goals,” Kerry said.

On Monday his tone could not have been more different.

“Today's verdicts fly in the face of the essential role of civil society, a free press and the real rule of law,” Kerry said. “I call on [Sisi] to make clear, publicly, his government’s intention to observe Egypt’s commitment to the essential role of civil society, a free press and the rule of law.”

Under the presidency of Mubarak, who ruled the country for three decades, that kind of pressure from the U.S., backed years of aid totaling tens of billions of dollars, might have prompted a response — a public hint at a pardon or maybe even an intervention. But in the new Egypt, American influence, or lack thereof, is yielding a different playbook.

We will not interfere in judicial rulings,” Sisi said at the conclusion of a televised speech at a military graduation ceremony the following day. “We must respect judicial rulings and not criticize them, even if others do not understand this.”

Sisi’s blunt public response to protests from Kerry and other Western leaders in the wake of the verdict reflected a new relationship between Egypt and countries that have long supported it.

These countries had provided financial and military aid in a deal intended to guarantee peace with Israel and a quiet front in the Middle East, but their influence now seems to have been surpassed by leaders in the Gulf who fear the Brotherhood and have little patience for Washington’s concerns about Egyptian democracy. In this new regional order, Sisi can risk spurning the West in a way Mubarak never could. 

There was a time, in 2011, when the uprising against Mubarak seemed to present the possibility of a new balance of interests. Egypt would elevate human rights and wind down what many citizens saw as the United States’ cynical support of autocracy.

The 9/11 attacks woke many in Washington to the dangers of a policy of supporting stability at the expense of democracy and human rights in the Arab world, and the uprising seemed to present the possibility of a more democratic order that could achieve a more sustainable stability and progress in the region.

But in the chaotic and often bloody wrangling that followed, world powers — most notably the U.S. — failed to craft a new strategy. Instead, U.S. policy in Egypt rode the political roller coaster.

“The one consistent element of Washington’s approach has been to stay engaged with Egypt and work with whoever is in power,” wrote Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the uprising. “There’s a simple reason for that: The United States has strong interests in Egypt, no matter who is in charge of the country.”

Those interests, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the same ones that predated the uprising: priority access to the crucial Suez Canal, routine permission to use Egyptian airspace and a tight lid on jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula, among others. They reflect a relationship between Egypt and the United States that continues to hinge on the two countries’ militaries, in that arena that most analysts believe American leverage — if it still exists — could be applied.

Since the uprising, American thinkers, many of them former government officials, have debated whether and how to adjust U.S. policy toward Egypt. That debate crystallized last summer, when Sisi deposed Morsi after a wave of protests and oversaw a crackdown on his supporters that left more than 1,000 people killed, the Brotherhood banned and dissent effectively silenced. Sisi’s election, in early June, with more than 96 percent of the vote, was seen by many in the United States as the troubling coronation of a new strongman.

As Sisi coasted across the presidential finish line, a bipartisan group of American scholars called the Working Group on Egypt, many of whom have ties to government, wrote to President Barack Obama and urged him to “overhaul” U.S. policy toward Cairo.

“Unfortunately, there is no sign yet that President Sisi plans to adopt policies that will take the country off its current path of instability, and there is no evidence that the United States could persuade him to change course even if it restored all suspended aid,” they wrote.

The Working Group’s letter asked the core question, Does the United States retain any leverage that could influence the Egyptian government’s behavior, and does that leverage lie in military aid?

A U.S.-supplied Apache helicopter flies over Tahrir Square during a protest in Cairo in July 2013.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters / Landov

U.S. military assistance to Egypt, which began in earnest after the Camp David accords in 1979, is devilishly complex — so much so that even the Defense Department office that oversees it, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, cannot make sense of balance sheets, according to a 2006 government study.

At its core, military aid to Egypt consists of $1.3 billion in annual funding appropriated by the State Department and deposited in an account at the New York Federal Reserve, with which Egypt is required to buy U.S. products. State and Defense Department employees then work closely with Egyptian government officers in Washington, D.C., to choose what they will buy. 

One system, known as cash flow finance, essentially allows Egypt to buy U.S. defense products on credit, and Cairo typically operates with more than $2.5 billion in outstanding purchase commitments at any given time, according to a study by David Schenker, a former top aide on Arab military and political affairs in the Pentagon and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Over the years, Egypt has spent the bulk of its money on more than 1,000 M1-A1 tanks, more than 220 F-16 fighter jets, 10 Apache attack helicopters, thousands of Humvees, naval vessels and other other munitions, many of which are bought in the United States but assembled in Egypt, according to Schenker.

But since last summer, military aid to Egypt has been in limbo. Though the Obama administration studiously avoided labeling Sisi’s ouster of Morsi a coup — a designation that would have automatically triggered a U.S. law requiring the end of all assistance — it held back the delivery of some items, including four F-16s and the 10 Apaches, in October.

The fate of military assistance now depends on internal administration debates, official certifications from Kerry, and high-ranking members of Congress who have opposed resuming the same kind of aid that Egypt enjoyed under Mubarak.

In April, Kerry certified that Egypt was upholding its strategic relationship with the United States, including peace with Israel. This was the first step toward unlocking aid. The administration announced it would transfer $650 million to Egypt’s account, citing provisions of law that allowed it to allocate funding at the minimum rate necessary to continue contracts, which were coming due at the time, and only for certain programs, including counterterrorism, border security and development projects in the Sinai.

But soon after Kerry’s certification, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Appropriations Committee, placed an informal hold on the allocation, saying he was “extremely disturbed by the Egyptian government’s flouting of human rights.” His decision came a day after a judge who had sentenced 529 Morsi supporters to death in an earlier mass trial sentenced a further 683 to death in a similar case.

Leahy and some of his fellow senators have recently stepped in where the Obama administration has hesitated, imposing strict conditions on aid to Egypt in a proposed budget for the coming fiscal year that would begin to undo decades of assistance.

In a draft funding bill for the State Department’s foreign operations released earlier this month, Leahy and others reduced military aid from $1.3 billion to $1 billion and proposed an end to any new cash flow finance contracts. This aid was strictly segmented into two tranches conditioned on the Egyptian government’s ruling democratically, releasing any Americans considered political prisoners — there are none now — and also setting free “all persons detained for exercising their rights to free expression, associations and peaceful assembly.”

The draft bill will have to be reconciled with its counterpart in the House of Representatives, but it marks further pressure for a fundamental rethink of Washington’s long strategic relationship with Cairo. While it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will push through existing aid, it is legally allowed to do so, without the blessing of members of Congress.

“We continue to consult with our Congress with respect to our assistance to Egypt,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told Al Jazeera. “Until those requirements are met, we will not be able to make certifications needed to release that assistance.”

More important, however, is what Egypt will now decide. The government has notably reached out to Russia to discuss possible military assistance, and Gulf nations have stepped in to supply Cairo with billions of dollars in critical economic assistance since the coup, pledging to do more in the coming year.

When Mubarak came to power in 1981, the Cold War was raging, and Egypt had only recently tilted toward the U.S. side under Mubarak's assassinated predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Sadat had signed the treaty with Israel, and the relationship with Washington mattered more than ever.

But in 2011, Mubarak was toppled while the United States looked on. The Obama administration’s willingness to work with a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood–led government, not to mention its willingness to negotiate with Iran, antagonized longtime allies in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia. And those longtime strategic partners made clear that they were willing to act independently of the U.S. to secure their interests.

Unlike Mubarak, Sisi came to power without U.S. backing, and his key strategic partners are elsewhere. He seems to be betting that Washington's concerns — which undergirded the relationship with Mubarak — will force the United States to accept his terms. The fate of American aid in the months ahead will prove him right, or wrong.

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