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What will it take for the US to cut military aid to Egypt?

Ever since the 3 July military coup that ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected government, the world has stood back to witness the Egyptian authorities’ brazen attempt to cleanse an entire community from Egypt’s population.

As an American citizen I have to ask: how many Egyptians need to be killed, injured, arrested and tortured, and how many families torn apart and destroyed, before the US will take decisive action against Egypt’s post-coup military regime?


And I am not the only American asking this question.

On Friday, the Los Angeles Times newspaper published an editorial under the headline “Stop coddling Egypt’s military”. The editors argue that: “It’s increasingly evident that the military rulers of Egypt are determined to intimidate and silence their political opponents, whether they are members of the Muslim Brotherhood or secular Egyptians who believe the generals are betraying the spirit of the ‘Arab Spring’. Yet the Obama administration continues to entertain the pious hope that Egypt is on the road to an inclusive democracy.”

The editors criticise the US response to the continued crackdown as being “polite to the point of pusillanimity”, and conclude that, “Clearly the current policy of trying not to offend [Egypt’s military] isn’t working.”

One week earlier, the Washington Post newspaper published a similar editorial, in which the editors denounce the Egyptian authorities’ criminalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement was designated a terrorist organisation on 25 December.

The Post’s editors lament how “Egypt has abandoned the path to democracy,” calling this a “tragedy” and asserting that: “The time has come for stronger US protests and action. To remain timid in the face of repression will invite only more.”

So why is the Obama administration not acting? After all, the US is supposedly a global superpower, and we have spent billions of dollars buying Egypt’s friendship.

Well, if we take a closer look at the two countries relations, we see that Egypt has never really been a client state of the US, and in fact the relationship is quite the reverse.

Military aid and “peace”

In February 2012, when Egypt’s military-led government under SCAF indicted 16 Americans working for non-governmental organisations in Egypt on charges of receiving foreign funds to foment unrest, US officials were quick to decry the move, and threatened a halt to American military aid to Egypt. In fact, 40 senators sent a strongly worded letter of warning directly to the former head of Egypt’s military, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee, warned the Egyptian military that, “the days of blank checks are over.”

And yet the following week, the rhetoric coming out of Washington was remarkably softened. According to the Atlantic magazine, officials had initially been so caught up in their outrage over the charges against Americans, including the son of the US Secretary of Transportation, that they did not think about how cutting Egypt’s military aid would have implications for their best friend in the Middle East, Israel.

Egypt is currently the fifth largest recipient of US aid in the world, and cumulatively second only to Israel. Foreign aid to Egypt was negligible until the mid-1970s and only ballooned after Egypt signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978. Since the mid-1980s, Egypt has received annually about $1.3 billion in military aid, while Israel received $1.8 billion until the year 2000, after which military aid to Israel fluctuated between $2 to $3.1 billion.

According to the Washington Institute, military aid to Egypt was initially tied to US aid levels to Israel, which is why the figures remained proportional up until 2000, when the launch of the second Palestinian intifada altered the equation. Two other factors also contributed to the shift. The first is that by the turn of the millennium, Egypt was no longer isolated in the region as a result of its neighbourly relations with Israel. The second is that by then, the US had phased out its economic aid to Israel, allocating part of it instead for military use.

Is it aid or blackmail?

Still, continued US aid to Egypt remains an unwritten condition of the Camp David Accords, and since the January 2011 revolution in Egypt, the Israel Lobby has repeatedly voiced its concern that if the aid were to dry up, then the peace treaty would be in jeopardy.

So it is not surprising that despite being subject to the harshly worded threats, Egypt continued to prosecute the American NGO workers, a political slap in Washington’s face, all the while receiving US military aid. All 16 Americans, along with 27 of their Egyptian peers, were eventually convicted and sentenced in absentia in June 2013.

This case is interesting for two reasons. One is that it highlights how US aid to Egypt is meant first and foremost to please and protect Israel. The second is that the Egyptian military regime knows this, and thus acts with impunity. The case against the 16 American NGO workers illustrates that. But so does the history of US economic aid to Egypt.

The US has always employed its foreign aid as a political tool, and its economic assistance is handled by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Both during the Cold War and in the neoliberal era, USAID projects have come with conditions strongly favouring free markets and privatisation. But interestingly, in the case of Egypt, scholar Bessma Momani argues that: “the Egyptian government perceived the aid programme as an entitlement for signing the Camp David Accord, where equality of treatment between Egypt and Israel was supposedly guaranteed. In consequence, USAID found that the aid at its disposal did not give the organisation any real influence to induce Egypt to alter its economic policies.”

Writing in 1997, scholar Duncan Clarke also noted that Egypt views the American funds as its entitlement for making peace with Israel, thus despite the massive amounts of US aid to Egypt, “The remarkable absence of vigorous, reliable Egyptian advocates of the US is particularly striking.” In 1991, the US and its allies even agreed to forgive half the $20.2 billion debt that Egypt owed to them, in thanks for Egypt’s support during the Persian Gulf War. Nevertheless, Momani suggests that during this time, the Egyptian government was still not willing to alter its economic policy enough for Washington’s liking.

Continually frustrated by Egypt’s unwillingness to “reform” its state driven economy, in 1993 the US decided to privatise its economic aid to Egypt. Momani describes how Cairo and Washington set up a “Presidents’ Council” consisting of 15 American and 15 Egyptian corporate representatives to manage private American investment in Egypt as an alternative to official US government aid. Oil executives along with major US multinationals comprised the American team, while companies that had well-established connections with the Egyptian elite and were close to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made up the Egyptian team, which was headed by Mubarak’s son Gamal.

In this way Egypt’s rulers successfully transformed the US’s ideologically driven neoliberal policy into a crony trade relationship that directly profited the Mubarak regime.

How US aid to Egypt works

There are other aspects of the bilateral relationship that also limit Washington’s options.

All US military aid to foreign countries is deposited into an account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as part of the Foreign Military Financing programme, which is run by a division of the Pentagon called the Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). Nearly all countries have to spend the funds the US allocates each year, but Egypt is allowed to place orders on credit, which means that Egypt usually has a backlog of orders before the annual aid is even dispersed. The only other country granted this privilege is Israel.

The Washington Institute cites estimates that Egypt currently has about “$4 billion in outstanding contractual commitments to be paid by cash-flow financing”. In other words, Egypt has run up a $4 billion debt to satisfy its rapacious appetite for American-made weapons and military equipment, and all at the expense of US taxpayers, whose money is being funnelled into the pockets of American weapons manufacturers.

That’s why throughout the recent crackdown, the contracts never stopped coming in. According to the Politico web site, the day of the coup the US Army asked for information from contractors interested in building and upgrading F-16 bases in Egypt. And less than one week after the Egyptian security forces massacred and wounded thousands of anti-coup protesters in Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda Squares, “the US Air Force awarded a contract to General Electric to upgrade the Egyptian air force’s fighter jets. The deal, worth nearly $14 million, is to extend the lives of 18 engines used on F-16s and other fighters.”

The argument goes that cutting military aid to Egypt would mean that US companies would not get paid for the orders they are processing and this would negatively impact the US economy, resulting in job losses. However, maintaining the aid while stopping the delivery of the American-made weapons and military equipment is a possibility.

A report published by Businessweek magazine last August noted that, “Once the work is completed and the contractor is paid, it’s up to the DSCA to deliver the equipment to Egypt.” And according to the report, as of August the agency was not delivering anything.

This included helicopters, fighter aircrafts and tank kits.

The magazine pointed out that: “This wouldn’t be the first time the US withheld military equipment it’s sold to a foreign country. In 1972, Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi paid $70 million for eight C-130 Hercules aircraft. After political tensions arose and relations between the US and Libya became strained, Washington simply decided not to deliver the planes. To this day the aircraft are still sitting outside Lockheed’s plant in Marietta, Ga.”

However, according to Al-Jazeera America, after the Obama administration announced in early October that it would suspend some military assistance to Egypt, “nearly 2,000 tons of critical US military equipment continued to flow to Egyptian ports.” Although there was a delay in the shipment of some fighter jets, other equipment, including several kinds of vehicles used for crowd control, missile systems and spare parts for tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, among other items, continued to depart from eastern US ports to Egypt.

And then there is “war on terror”

So if the aid was supposedly halted, what is the catch?

One problem is that the Obama administration has repeatedly vowed to continue its provision of weapons and military equipment to help the Egyptian authorities fight “terrorism” in the Sinai, which shares a border with Israel.

Another is that the shipments mainly contain spare parts. As Al-Jazeera America points out, during the 1980s and 1990s, US military aid “led Egypt to phase out its Soviet-made arsenal, replacing most of its military equipment with higher-end US products.” Since then, Egypt has amassed an arsenal of American-made weapons and equipment, including thousands of tanks and the fourth-largest fleet of F-16 fighter aircrafts in the world.

“There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion,” Shana Marshall of the Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University joked to American National Public Radio.

So while Egypt is not in need of more weapons, the existing equipment does get worn out and continues to require a constant supply of spare parts, which the US freely provides. And Marshall also told Al-Jazeera America that: “there’s a lot of pressure on Congress [from the defence industry] to maintain those production lines in their own districts.”

This helps to explain why so many members of Congress, including Eliot Engel of New York, the most senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed “concern” when the Obama administration announced that it was withholding selected aid in October.

That said, some members of Congress did actively lobby to end military aid to Egypt while the country was under the leadership of President Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood, after all, always did entertain the possibility of rethinking the Camp David Accords. Of course, these officials failed to realise that during Egypt’s short-lived democracy, US military aid went directly to Egypt’s military, and not to the civilian government.

In any case, there is public support for an aid freeze. A Pew Research survey in August found that “51 per cent of Americans believe the US should cut off military aid to Egypt to pressure the government there to end the violence against anti-government protesters.” And this number would likely be higher if Americans knew that the dispersal of military aid to Egypt could continue while the deliveries of the weapons are halted, weapons which could then even be sold to other parties for a profit, thus ensuring that American jobs are not lost.

So what is the prognosis for US military aid to Egypt? Is it even possible for the US to follow the European Union’s moral lead and suspend the export of all equipment that could be used by the Egyptian military regime in its ongoing campaign of repression?

Although in October President Obama suspended the delivery of some military equipment to Egypt pending the election of a civilian government, Washington still refuses to call the events surrounding 3 July a “coup”, a determination that would automatically halt all US military aid to Egypt in accordance with US law. And significantly, right after President Obama announced the suspension, Egypt hired a new Washington lobby firm.

Thus it should be no surprise to hear that before going on winter recess, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill on 18 December “that would allow the US to resume its full $1.6 billion aid relationship with Egypt by granting President Obama the power to waive [the federal law on the coup restriction] based on national security,” as reported by the Associated Press. Only a few days before the Senate committee passed this bill, three right wing House Republicans travelled to Cairo to visit General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi: Louie Gohmert of Texas, Steve King of Iowa and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Considering that for Washington, US national security is mainly defined by two key concerns, Israel and the global war on “terror”, and that the three House Republicans have a particular obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood, it is no wonder that Egypt’s interim authorities subsequently declared the movement a terrorist organisation.

And yet the new US law also aims to ensure that: “Egypt continues to implement the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, is fighting terrorism, is allowing the US Army to transit the territory of Egypt, is supporting a transition to an inclusive civilian government, is respecting and protecting the political and economic freedoms of all Egyptians, is respecting freedom of expression and due process of law, and finally, is abiding by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly.

While none of these conditions are anything particularly new, Hussein Haridy, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister, has declared the bill “a blatant interference in the domestic affairs of Egypt” that must be firmly rejected by the interim authorities.

So despite Egypt’s continued human rights abuses and the calls from the American media for Washington to take action, US military aid to Egypt will probably continue to flow. Indeed, considering that in November Egypt negotiated a multi-billion dollar weapons deal with Russia, financed by the petrol dollars of the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the historical imbalance of power between the US and Egypt in the latter’s favour, it seems more likely that if the aid were ever to be cancelled, then it would be the Egyptian authorities making that decision, not Washington.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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