WHEN HALF a dozen Americans were allowed to leave Egypt on March 1 despite being criminally charged with illegal political activity, the Obama administration insisted that its concern about the case — which it had warned could jeopardize military aid to Egypt — was not limited to the U.S. citizens.
Yet now the administration is considering going forward with military aid to Egypt — even though the criminal case in Cairo proceeds against more than two dozen Egyptians and civil society remains under assault. It’s hard to imagine another move that could do more damage to U.S. interests and the cause of democracy.
The trial is due to resume April 10. The nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, have not been registered, and property seized in a December raid against them has not been returned. Some 400 other NGOs in Egypt are under official investigation. More broadly, Egypt’s ruling military council continues to violate basic norms of democracy and human rights.
To provide aid under these circumstances, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likely would issue a “national security waiver” exempting the administration from a congressional requirement that the State Department certify that Egypt is “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.”
After a year of turmoil, U.S. relations with Egypt’s political actors — from the military to the secular elite to the ascendant Islamist political parties — are shaky. A waiver would send the wrong message to all of them. It would confirm the widespread suspicion in Cairo that Washington cared only about its own citizens, not the underlying democratic principles in the NGO case. It would tell the military that, provided Americans are not harmed, it is free to persecute peaceful citizen activists and subvert the democratic transition. It would cruelly break faith with those Egyptians who went to work in U.S.-funded democracy and human rights programs and now will face an unjust trial alone.
There is no legitimate national security reason why a decision on military aid cannot be made after July 1, when Egypt should have completed a transition to a new democratic government. That transition should mandate an across-the-board rethinking of aid and a discussion with the new civilian authorities in Cairo about what is appropriate. Administration officials say that they plan such a review and that the purpose of resuming aid now would be to avoid a crisis with the outgoing regime. Yet that policy risks encouraging Egypt to become another Pakistan — where an unaccountable military deals directly with Washington, while elected civilians are sidelined.
Sources suggest that the administration is also worried that a production line of F-16s, which Egypt is using the aid to purchase, might have to shut if aid is suspended. That might be an election-year jobs issue, but it is not a national security issue. The real threat to U.S. security is that the transition in Egypt will end in a disaster: The military will refuse to yield power, or a democratic government will be forced by a popular backlash to rupture relations with the United States. By handing the generals money when they have failed to meet basic democratic tests, the administration would make each of those outcomes more likely.