It is believed widely in Egypt that US aid to the country is a sign of Egyptian weakness, but the Americans see it differently. If Egypt wasn't important strategically, a world superpower wouldn't have given massive aid to Cairo for 30 years; the second highest levels of US aid to any country after Israel. Despite claims that the US only aids Egyptians to boost US imports and recruit US employees through the aid programme, this is not enough to explain the flow of around $65 billion of American taxpayers' money to Egypt annually.
To analyse the implications of US aid to Egypt from an American viewpoint it is useful to examine military aid, which has remained at high levels, unlike economic aid which has been shrinking.
Some Americans say that it is necessary to give $1.3 billion to the Egyptian army every year due to the inability of US decision-makers to give up the gains that such aid brings. The anti-aid voices in Washington are drowned out by the pro-aid lobby; talk of "cutting aid" to Egypt is like "playing with fire" according to one US expert quoted by Voice of America earlier this year. "Egypt is a country which matters significantly. It has a disproportionate impact on the future of the broader Middle East," said US Congressman Steve Chabot, "so we certainly have an interest in having Egypt as an ally of the United States and continuing to have that relationship." Former diplomat Robert E. Hunter told CNN that although his country's military assistance to Egypt "may look like a huge bill… it is a small cost compared with the risks" the US is spared as a direct result of the aid.
This means that the reduction of Egypt's regional and international role in recent years was due to the way ex-president Mubarak handled Egyptian foreign policy, not any weakness of Egypt's international weight per se. Egypt can play important cards to put pressure on the US which should not be taken lightly; that's why the US bears 80% of the Egyptian army's weapons procurement costs, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. However, Egypt's ability to use those cards wisely weakened when Mubarak's planned hereditary succession scenario materialised and Washington succeeded in exploiting an obvious weak spot; Mubarak clung to the presidency because he wanted to pass it on to his son at all costs.
From America's point of view, there are several aspects to the importance of US-Egypt relations, which reflect Egypt's strengths. For a start, Israel's security is a top priority for American politicians; military aid is granted to Egypt primarily in return for Cairo's commitment to the peace treaty with Israel. Israel's security is also linked to the long-standing US goal of "stability in the region". For example, former US diplomat Daniel Kurtzer told MSNBC in January, "We've gotten [sic] more than 30 years of very strong relations with the most important country in the Middle East… We've put in billions of dollars… but we've also gotten [sic] a very strong return on that investment: A peace treaty between with Egypt and Israel… and an ally in a region that every American knows is unstable and potentially dangerous for us."
In return for US aid to the Egyptian army, American naval ships receive special treatment in the Suez Canal, with "priority access" and "expedited processing". A CRS report claimed that, "The US Navy, which sends an average of a dozen ships through the Suez Canal per month, receives expedited processing for nuclear warships to pass through the Canal, a valued service that can normally take weeks otherwise required for other foreign navies." The Suez Canal not only enables Egypt to play a fundamental role in the movement of world oil supplies, it is also a vital military route towards Iraq and Afghanistan.
The military facilities that Egypt provides to the United States extend to the use of Egyptian airspace: Egypt "provided over-flight permission to 36,553 US military aircraft through Egyptian airspace from 2001 to 2005," said a 2006 study conducted by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
US military aid to Egypt gives America political influence in Cairo. In his aforementioned article published in the early days of the January 25 Revolution, Robert Hunter described the US relationship with the Egyptian army as "Washington's primary source of influence over what will happen" in line with "American interests". He warned that, "Cutting off this aid or threatening to do so could be a body blow to U.S. policy."
In this regard, USA Today mentioned relevant communication between American and Egyptian military leaders during the revolution, such as a phone conversation between the Chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen and his Egyptian counterpart Lieutenant-General Sami Enan; and another phone conversation between the US Defence Secretary and Egypt's then Defence Minister Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
If the US is so keen to maintain its military aid to Egypt, the question that should be asked is whether or not Egypt should continue to accept it. After all, who does it benefit most?
From the Egyptian point of view, US military assistance has helped the country to replace some of its old Russian-made weapons with modern American equivalents. Officials were quoted in the US GAO study, saying that "52 percent of their military inventory is US equipment as of August 2005." Egyptian army personnel are trained by US experts in Egypt and the United States; around 500 Egyptians study at US military academies every year. In return, US aid created "a military loyal to US interests"; that's the way it is described in the Jewish-American website Jewish Weekly.
The GAO study cited a number of "examples of Egypt's support for US goals", which included an Egyptian military hospital in the infamous Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The New York Times ran a report on Bagram in 2005 citing cases of Afghans tortured to death by American soldiers in the detention centre located inside the military air base. (The report didn't mention the nationality of the patients who received medical treatment at the hospital.)
The Egyptian army's dependence on US aid prevents it from being completely independent; Egypt's adoption of US interests is in and of itself a goal behind the military aid, as spelled out in official US documents.
This situation could be explained during Mubarak's reign by the US being able to put pressure on the ex-president using the reform card and hereditary succession issue. The revolution that toppled Mubarak is supposed to have neutralised this pressure point, and it is now clear, judging by Americans' keenness on maintaining the flow of aid, that Egypt's leverage is stronger than Egyptians think.
Some analysts are concerned that a cut in aid would affect the Egyptian army's ability to confront external dangers, especially from Israel, but this concern is misplaced. Egypt is not at war with Israel; rather, the two countries seek to avoid such a war. The evidence is that Israelis expressed serious worries about the controversy sparked in Egypt over possible peace treaty amendments post-revolution.
That point aside, US military aid to Israel outmatches that given to Egypt. US legislation insists on Israel being able to maintain a "military qualitative edge"; it is illegal for the US to sell to any country in the Middle East weapons that are more advanced than those which Israel gets. Thus, the weaponry ensured to the Egyptian army by US aid does not guarantee that Egypt will be protected against Israel. This requires Egyptians to examine the possibility of alternatives to guarantee Egypt's real ability to protect its borders and preserve the independence of its policies.
One such alternative is to purchase weapons from other markets and diversify its weapons base. Egypt could continue to buy weapons from the same American suppliers as at present, even without US aid to pay for them; the arms manufacturers have enough influence over Congress to go on selling arms to Egypt if Washington did decide to cut aid for whatever reason.
Whether or not Israel poses a real threat to Egypt, US military aid does not guarantee Egyptian security. And no matter how beneficial the aid is, it is not healthy for Egypt to be so dependent on the United States forever. In the long run, Egypt must aim at enhancing its own military-industrial complex, which is already the strongest in the Arab world according to Global Security, a think tank specialising in military issues. Post-Mubarak, Cairo has a real opportunity to do just that.
Sara Khorshid is an Egyptian journalist. This article was first published in Arabic in Shorouk, 2/11/2011
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.