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Why the U.S. should cut off aid to Egypt: An interview with Marc Lynch.

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After the Egyptian military cracked down on supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday, the country has seen a series of violent clashes that have left at least 638 dead. That, in turn, has led to renewed scrutiny of U.S. policy in the region.

On Thursday, President Obama said the violence "needs to stop" and canceled a joint military exercise with the Egyptian government. But he stopped short of saying anything about the $1.5 billion in military and economic aid that the United States gives Egypt each year. Some experts and politicians think Obama should cut this assistance altogether.

That includes Marc Lynch, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He published a piece in Foreign Policy on Thursday arguing that "it’s time for Washington to cut Egypt loose." We talked by phone this afternoon.

Brad Plumer: Let's talk about U.S. policy toward Egypt. Ever since the Egyptian military ousted Mohammed Morsi's government back in July, the Obama administration has reacted fairly cautiously. What are they thinking here?

Marc Lynch: When the coup first happened, I think they wanted to wait and see how things were going to develop. The U.S. obviously didn't want the coup to happen. The entire heart of their strategy — and I do believe they've had a strategy this whole time — has been to push Egypt toward a democratic transition, to hold elections, to bring all the political trends inside the system. That meant bringing in the Islamists, the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberals, the youth activists, and channeling everything toward democratic elections.

The coup basically destroyed all that. It completely swept aside all the institutions, all the processes that the U.S. had been working to try to support. At the same time, however, there was no real love for Morsi, and there were a lot of people who didn't trust the Muslim Brotherhood. So there was a real ambivalence on the part of the U.S. They were opposed to a coup, but they weren't sure they wanted to go to the mat to restore Morsi to power.

So I think that’s why the administration didn't want to call it a coup and didn't want to cut off aid. They wanted to maintain a position where they'd still have open communication with Gen. [Abdel Fatah] al-Sissi and with the staff to push them back toward elections, to get them to refrain from violence against the Muslim Brotherhood, and to get the country back to where it was before [the ouster].

At that time, I wasn't calling for cutting off aid, because I saw what the administration was doing and it made sense. They were still able to talk to the Brotherhood, they were still able to talk to the Egyptian military. [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel was on the phone with Gen. Sissi a number of times. [Deputy Secretary of State] Bill Burns was there for almost a week. They were trying to get everyone to come together.

BP: So how did yesterday's violence changed things?

ML: With the slaughter yesterday, that’s all come to an end. I know that Obama hedged and didn’t say anything concrete about what’s going to happen in his press conference today. And I’m sure the administration will keep saying the same things about restraint and a return to the political process. But it looks to me like it’s done. They can’t just ignore over 500 people dead. Or that Egypt's security forces have been involved in the slaughter. This is all contrary to our own declared red lines.

BP: What do you mean "it's done"?

ML: Obviously Egypt’s not going to disappear. It's an important country, and we still have interests there. But our entire policy so far has been based on maintaining lines of communication to push Egypt back to a democratic transition. That's not working.

BP: In Foreign Policy today, you called on the administration to cut off the $1.5 billion aid we send to Egypt. What would that actually accomplish at this point?

ML: The question of aid to the Egyptian military has become this totem that everyone is always talking about. And I've been critical of calls to cut off aid in the past, because it's a blunt instrument. You have to save it for a really big occasion.

The aid itself is not necessarily that significant in material terms. A lot of the actual money ends up going back to U.S. companies. It's as much a subsidy for U.S. manufacturing as a subsidy for the Egyptian military. And the Gulf states have also made clear that they’ll cover any losses if the U.S. pulls back.

So it's really symbolic more than anything. But it’s a powerful symbol. And you can see that the administration is still waffling. I’m not a believer in the idea that we absolutely have to take clear stands all the time, but this is one of those times when we have to. It’s not even just the 500 dead. The Egyptian military did what we explicitly told them not to do. How can we still pretend that this aid is giving us influence?

BP: But in practical terms, is there any reason to think the U.S. withdrawing aid would affect what's going on in Egypt now?

ML: 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.

BP: What are the potential downsides to cutting off aid to Egypt?

ML: Aside from pissing off people in congressional districts with defense contracts and factories? On the strategic side, once you do this, you've played that card, and the Egyptian government doesn't have to take your phone calls anymore. It becomes a real diplomatic crisis.

On top of that, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and maybe Kuwait would be stepping in to cover the bills. So we'd be doing this at odds with some of our closest allies in the region.

On top of all that, a lot of people might add that withdrawing aid might compromise Camp David [the peace accords between Egypt and Israel]. I'm not sure about that. The Egyptians keep peace with Israel because it's in their interests to do so. And the main backers of the coup — the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis — they have pretty good relations with Israel. So there wouldn't be foreign backers who are egging on a more confrontational stance.

So the real cost is that the military is the one main player in Egypt that will still talk to us. And we'd lose that. It cuts off one of our most important alliances in region, and that's not a small thing.

BP: Is it possible to envision how the current crisis in Egypt might get resolved at this point?

ML: Honestly, I think things are going to get a lot worse, not better. The military's rationale for moving in on the protester camps was that this was a festering wound, we just need to clear it out, do a surgical operation, end this, and move on. I think it’s clear that this is not what’s happening. The streets are incredibly polarized right now, and I think it’ll be extremely difficult to calm things down and get people back on the table.

For the past few years I’ve been one of the more optimistic people that Egypt would work things out. It just seems like there were enough state institutions, enough political consensus, enough of a robust civil society to keep things going.

Now I’m not so sure. I think what we’ve got now is a fairly transparent attempt by the military at Mubarak’s restoration, except without Mubarak. I've called it "High Mubarakism." You've got a state of emergency, lots of anti-American propaganda. Sissi is a bit more popular, but I don’t think it will work. Mubarak failed for a reason.

BP: And at this point there's not much the U.S. can do but watch?

ML: The problem is pretty much everyone is hostile to us at this point. The U.S. tried to take the stance of not supporting a particular group. But the more polarized Egypt got, the more everyone thought we were against them. All the liberals thought we were on the Brotherhood’s side. All the Brotherhood thought we were on the liberals side. So now you've got antipathy from every player in Egypt. And it's being fed by a really malicious and malevolent anti-American propaganda campaign in the state media and in the pro-coup independent media. That just creates a really toxic atmosphere.

So America's ability to do things like being evenhanded broker or try to mediate the conflict is just infinitely harder in that kind of situation.

Further reading:

--The U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion per year in aid. Here's what it does.

--Over at World Views, Max Fisher lays out the cases for and against cutting U.S. aid to Egypt.