Will canceling U.S.-Egypt military exercises do anything? Probably not.

August 15, 2013

Supporters of army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi carry his portrait and wave the Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir square. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The one policy change that President Obama announced in his Thursday morning address on the violence in Egypt was to cancel a forthcoming military exercise with the Egyptian armed forces. The move is clearly meant to drive home the Obama administration's condemnation of the military-led government's recent steps, most notably its July 3 coup and its Wednesday crackdown on Islamist sit-ins, which claimed 525 lives. It's also likely meant as a signal to the generals, who had ignored advance U.S. warnings against both the coup and the crackdown, that they better start listening to the United States.

Still, it's difficult to see how canceling these military exercises would change the Egyptian military's calculus. The generals care about the biannual exercises, but it's not a particularly high priority. They clearly believed (probably wrongly) that it was in their own best interests to crack down on the Islamist sit-ins. They surely understood that they would pay a high price for this violence. If the generals are willing to accept 500-plus civilians deaths and the strong possibility of sectarian violence, maybe even a return to the Islamist insurgencies of the 1990s, then it's hard to imagine they'll be fussed by missing out on some military exercises with the United States.

The biannual exercises, called "Operation Bright Star," began in 1980 after the United States brokered the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. Those accords also included, much more importantly, a massive military aid package for Egypt that today exceeds $1 billion annually. Still, Bright Star is a way for the Egyptian military to show off its prestige at home – something about which it cares a great deal – and for Egyptian and American officers to develop personal relationships. But it's not a core interest for the Egyptian military.

The only way that canceling Bright Star is likely to change the generals' calculus is if they see it as a precursor to canceling aid, or some other measure that would actually deter them. But the United States has so far declined to call the July 3 ouster of the president a "coup." Nor has it cut any of the U.S. aid to the Egyptian military, although Obama hinted that the White House would "reassess" this point.

If the United States didn't cut or cancel aid after the coup (or even call it a coup) and if it didn't cut or cancel aid after Wednesday's killings, how seriously are Egyptian military leaders going to take Obama's threat to "reassess" the aid going forward? Unless there's some exchange happening behind the scenes that we don't know about, it's difficult to imagine that the Egyptian military seriously fears it will lose U.S. aid.

The Obama administration surely understands all this. It's possible that they are earnestly willing to cut or cancel aid and hope this cancellation will communicate that, although there's little sign of this so far. It's possible that they're bluffing and hoping this will introduce at least enough uncertainty that the generals will think twice about using live ammunition against hundreds of civilians. But it's also possible that, as Cairo-based journalist Evan Hill suggested, this is more about domestic U.S. politics, that the Obama administration doesn't want to be seen holding joint exercises with their Egyptian counterparts so soon after the coup and crackdown.

The Bright Star exercises were canceled the last time around as well, in late 2011, after the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.

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Max Fisher · August 15, 2013