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Egypt’s Got 99 Problems, But U.S. Aid Ain’t One

Egypt’s Got 99 Problems, But U.S. Aid Ain’t One

I’m not sure what the U.S. government was hoping to achieve by suspending some of its military assistance to Egypt, but whatever it was — it failed.

Though the State Department declared that the purpose was to nudge Egypt towards making "credible progress" towards democracy, this is neither serious nor convincing.

The decision is not serious – because, if it were, the United States would have done much more than cancel war games and a four-year-old order of tanks. The United States merely wants to be seen as doing "something" to sanction the military-led Egyptian government, which clearly isn’t concerned with its already shaky international standing, and continues to wantonly kill its own citizens without a second thought (including on the national holiday a few days prior to the U.S. decision, pictured above). And even as the State Department spokesperson was searching for the most diplomatically appropriate way to say, "We are really mad at you," Secretary of State Kerry was making reassuring remarks to Cairo, emphasizing the United States’ "commitment to the success of this government," and that the aid suspension wasn’t "a withdrawal from the countries’ relationship." That doesn’t make for a very convincing message.

And the decision isn’t convincing because, on the ground, we can plainly see that the aid cut plays nicely into the Egyptian government’s PR campaign. The U.S. decision allows Egypt’s rulers, who are fond of populist glory, to assume the stance of the independently-minded renegade standing against the will of the empire. In fact, not only did the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs backhandedly declare the aid cut an incorrect decision in terms of content and timing, but apparently General Sisi also chose to pass a message to the United States via the visiting E.U. representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton: "threats involving aid will not work, because Egypt has friendships with neighboring countries and is able to overcome its financial crisis." Business tycoon and regime supporter Naguib Sawiris called the U.S. move "arrogant" and issued a warning: "Don’t underestimate the dignity of the Egyptians."

Essentially, the message from Egypt was "Keep your aid," set to the brouhaha of a fawning audience.

To understand this rather peculiar reaction to losing free money, we need to consider two factors.

First: the nature of the aid in question. The United States provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid, as well as $250 million in development assistance, yearly. Aside from that clear imbalance in favor of armament, which is a nudge for Egypt to uphold the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, most of the aid is tied, which means that Egypt is contractually obligated to buy U.S. equipment and employ U.S. consultants. The money flows back to the United States. (Of all developed countries, the United States has the highest proportion of tied aid). Washington’s cuts affect the delivery of military equipment and financial military assistance — so there’s nothing life-threatening or particularly worrisome about them for Egypt’s leaders. Besides, the country is still swimming in freshly received petrodollars that have buoyed the government, emboldening it to flatly declare (link in Arabic) that it no longer needs IMF funds, and to send this newest, glib message to the Americans.

Second: the psychology of the Egyptian rulers. The governments that have ruled Egypt since 2011 have displayed a predilection for sacrificing long-term gain for short-term populist plaudits; it was the military junta, after all, that blocked a salutary but unpopular IMF loan in 2011, against the recommendation of the experts at the ministry of finance. The military regime in power today will once again choose to bask in the street glory of its newfound "rebel" image.

While the Egyptian government is snickering and brushing off the U.S. gesture as insignificant, it is nevertheless slightly miffed — emphasis on "slightly." But one country is genuinely upset about the aid reduction: Israel. Referring to the move as a "strategic error," according to Israel’s Channel 2, an unnamed official in the Netanyahu administration was reportedly less than elated with the cuts. While the official was relieved that the cuts didn’t touch the "antiterrorism" activities of the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula, he maintained that the United States must also consider "wider interests."

But the United States is indeed looking at those "wider interests" — and that is precisely why the cuts are so meager and the Egyptian reaction so tame.

If the United States is serious about pushing the Egyptian government toward a more participatory mode of rule, and if aid must be the weapon of choice (the wisdom of which is a different discussion altogether), then it should, as was recently suggested, "double down" on aid — not to the military, but to civil society. The United States is unpopular as things stand already, but giving means to local organizations would have a greater impact than toying with military aid.

That is, if the United States were serious.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.