The cases for and against cutting U.S. aid to Egypt, explained

August 15, 2013

An image grab taken from Egyptian state TV in July shows Egypt's army chief General  Abdel Fatah al-Sissi giving a live broadcast calling for public rallies to give him a mandate to fight "terrorism and violence." (AFP PHOTO / EGYPTIAN TV)

President Obama said today he would ask his staff to "reassess" U.S. aid to Egypt, in response to the country's crackdown on two Islamist sit-ins that killed more on than 600 people on Wednesday. But he held back from actually reducing or canceling the $1.3 billion in annual aid, much of which goes to the military. The aid has been a major feature of U.S. policy in the Middle East since it was enshrined in the 1979, U.S.-brokered Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel.

There is little indication that the Obama administration is about to cut aid to Egypt. Still, Obama left the door open enough to revitalize a long-running debate in Washington over the aid package and whether it does more harm or more good. Here, then, are summaries of the best cases for and against.

The case for keeping U.S. aid to Egypt, in six parts

(1) Egypt is a big, strategically important country and the U.S. has a lot at stake in maintaining a working relationship with its government and military. Anti-Americanism is very high there, so it's reasonable to think that the relationship would worsen if it wasn't for this billion-plus annual payment tying the two countries together.

There's a common view that the aid provides the U.S. "leverage" with Egypt because Washington can threaten to cancel it unless Egypt does what we want. There's maybe something to that, but the U.S. threatens to cut the aid extremely rarely (and is maybe believed ever more rarely).

(2) Maybe more important is that the aid institutionalizes the U.S.-Egypt relationship, bringing American and Egyptian civilian and military officials together, allowing them to build the personal relationship that can matter a lot more for diplomacy than you might think. During the crisis there in early July, just before the military staged its coup, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's personal relationship with Egyptian military chief Abdel Fatah el-Sissi was, according to one senior administration official, "basically the only viable channel of communication."

Other reasons to keep the aid: (3) Wealthy Arab Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would probably love to fill any void the U.S. leaves. Who knows where they might want to steer Egyptian domestic and foreign policy? (4) Cutting aid is, as academic Gregory Johnson put it, is a "one-shot deal." The U.S. can only cut aid once. (5) Cutting aid would diplomatically isolate Egypt, where many are already skeptical of the West, making leaders less afraid of doing things that could make the country more of a pariah state.

And, finally; (6) it's not clear that cutting the aid would actually change the Egyptian military's calculus. As George Washington University professor Marc Lynch told my colleague Brad Plumer in a very interesting interview, "These guys are fighting to the death right now. For the Egyptian military and for the Muslim Brotherhood, this is an existential battle. So for the military, keeping Washington happy is nice, but they’re willing to pay any cost that we can realistically impose."

The case for cutting aid, in five parts

(1) The Obama administration clearly does not want the Egyptian military to stage coups or shoot at largely peaceful civilian protests. But when it refuses to call a coup a "coup" and when it responds to 600-plus crackdown deaths with a rhetorical condemnation but little policy change, the administration risks communicating that it is at least to some extent willing to tolerate these sorts of actions. A decision against cutting aid is also a decision for continuing aid, which is itself a passive but implicit show of support for things that the U.S. does not actually want to support.

(2) It would be a symbolic gesture on behalf of human rights and democracy in a part of the world where they often get short shrift. As Lynch wrote in his piece calling for the U.S. to cut aid, "Taking a (much belated) stand is the only way for the United States to regain any credibility -- with Cairo, with the region, and with its own tattered democratic rhetoric." What happened in Egypt on Wednesday was really bad and, in this view, the U.S. should in principle not have anything to do with the government that did it.

(3) The Egyptian military has felt comfortable defying the U.S. twice in the past six weeks, first when Washington told them not to go ahead with the coup and then when it told them not to stage the crackdown. Either they don't care what the U.S. thinks or they don't believe the Americans will follow through on their threats; cutting aid would at least address the latter.

(4) It might change less than we think. I wrote above that cutting aid could edge Egypt a bit closer to pariah status. But it's also possible that the Egyptian military wouldn't change behavior if the aid was cut because the aid might not play that much of a role in its decision-making. At the time of the 1979 Camp David accords, the aid was a way for the U.S. to steer Egyptian foreign policy. But, today, Egyptian foreign policy is pretty naturally aligned with that of the U.S. anyway: Cairo too wants regional stability, opposes Islamist terrorism and wants to contain Iran. Those all remain true if Saudi and Emirati funding displaces U.S. aid.

(5) Maybe, just maybe, it will work. The U.S. plans on restoring aid to Mali, which it cut after a coup in 2012. The troubled West African country has since taken some solid steps back democracy. Maybe that would have happened without the U.S. holding out aid as an incentive, but it's possible that the aid helped to encourage Malian leaders in the right direction. This seems a lot less likely in Egypt, which just does not need U.S. money in the same way that Mali does and where the military sees retaining power as much more important. But stranger things have happened.

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Max Fisher · August 15, 2013