The U.S. may cut aid to Egypt. Five reasons that’s a good idea (and six why it’s a bad idea).

October 9, 2013

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

The United States may be about to announce significant cuts to its $1.2 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, according to some U.S. officials. That aid has been a defining feature of U.S. policy in the Middle East for decades. It was instituted as part of the historic, U.S.-brokered 1979 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. It's a linchpin of the U.S. alliance with Egypt, the Middle East's most populous country. So the fact that Washington might pull big pieces of that aid back could be a very big deal.

To be clear, the White House has yet to officially confirm any aid cuts, and it's not clear how extensive the cuts would be or how quickly they could take effect. Washington has been debating what to do about the aid since Egypt's military staged a coup in early July, despite high-level U.S. appeals not to. Since then, the military government has behaved badly, curbing civil liberties and staging brutal crackdowns that have ended with hundreds of deaths. In August, President Obama announced that his administration would "reassess" the aid. Then not much happened. Now, maybe it will.

Is cutting U.S. aid to Egypt a good idea? It's a tough question. There are long-term American interests to consider in this very important part of the world, but also the United States' reputation as a champion of democracy. There's a case for punishing Egypt's generals but also a case for keeping them close. Here, from August, are the five best reasons to cut the aid -- and the six best reasons to keep it.

The five best reasons to cut U.S. aid to Egypt

(1) The Obama administration clearly does not want the Egyptian military to stage coups or shoot at largely peaceful civilian protesters. 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 United States 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 Washington 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 United States should in principle not have anything to do with the government that did it.

(3) The Egyptian military has felt comfortable defying the United States twice in the past six weeks, first when Washington told the generals 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 United States thinks or they don't believe that 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 its 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 United States to steer Egyptian foreign policy. But, today, Egyptian foreign policy is pretty naturally aligned with that of the United States 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 United States 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 to democracy. Maybe that would have happened without the United States 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.

The six best reasons to not cut aid

(1) Egypt is a big, strategically important country, and the United States 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 United States "leverage" with Egypt because Washington can threaten to cancel it unless Egypt does what we want. There's maybe something to that, but the United States threatens to cut the aid extremely rarely (and is maybe believed even 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 al-Sissi was, according to one senior administration official, "basically the only viable channel of communication."

(3) Wealthy Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would probably love to fill any void the United States 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 United States 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.

(6) Finally, it's not clear that cutting 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."

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Max Fisher · October 9, 2013