US continues military aid to Egypt, but future ambiguous

The US government announced last Friday that it would give the Egyptian military US$1.3 billion in aid for the 2012 fiscal year, just as it has every year for past 33. The news follows a contestation of this habit by Congress, which could have led to revisiting aid to Egypt.

After last winter’s uprising and the assumption of power by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), US lawmakers said that before dispensing any aid, they would require the State Department to affirm that the Egyptian government has made progress on human rights, an area where the ruling junta has largely fallen below the international standards. Though the State Department initially agreed to report back to Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that they would instead waive the requirement on “national security” grounds.

The decision demonstrates the intersection between US regional interests, some of its domestic concerns, and a still fluid policy in Washington. But with the future of Egypt’s government far from certain and many lawmakers questioning the decision, the once “untouchable” $1.3 billion that benefits Egyptian generals and US defense contractors may still be in jeopardy in the future as policy makers in Washington struggle to re-calibrate their policies for a newly unfamiliar Egypt.

In mid-December 2011, the US Congress stipulated that Clinton must certify that the SCAF is supporting the transition to a civilian democracy and "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law." Congress also stated that Egypt must continue to respect the peace treaty with Israel.

That development came shortly after security forces attacked protesters in Tahrir Square, setting off nearly a week of clashes that left more than 40 protesters dead and followed on a string of other attacks on protesters, including in October when military forces attacked a group of Coptic Christian protesters.

Since then, the military repeatedly repressed free speech and assembly, with further violent crackdowns on demonstrators. But most egregious from the point of view of US officials was the 29 December raid on the offices of 17 non-governmental organizations, three of which are Washington-based and US government-funded, and the subsequent prosecution of over 40 NGO employees, including at least 16 American citizens, over charges of receiving foreign funding in contravention to Egypt’s strict NGO laws.

The prosecution, which SCAF and cabinet members insisted was the work of an independent judiciary, set off a diplomatic crisis and US officials from the military, State Department and Congress raised it repeatedly in visits to Cairo. Seven Americans, including the son of a cabinet member, were placed under travel bans. State media helped inflame local opinions around the story.

From Washington’s perspective, the crisis was largely resolved in early February, when the travel ban was lifted after the US government paid some over $1 million in bail, and the Americans left Egypt. The case is ongoing, leaving the fate of one American NGO worker who stayed to face the charges uncertain.

In a statement announcing the State Department’s waiver, spokesperson Victoria Nuland praised Egypt’s “significant progress toward democracy” since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, but added that “more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms.”

“The Secretary [Clinton‘s] decision to waive is also designed to demonstrate our strong support for Egypt’s enduring role as a security partner and leader in promoting regional stability and peace,” Nuland said. Under Mubarak, Egypt, alongside Israel and Saudi Arabia, was one of Washington’s closest partners in the Middle East, guaranteeing access to the Suez Canal, cooperation on so-called counter-terrorism issues, and mediating between Israel and other Arab countries.

The decision to waive the human rights and democracy requirement was broadly condemned by American, Egyptian and international human rights organizations. Amnesty International suggested that the weapons the Egyptian military procures using US aid could be used against protesters, while Freedom House, one of the pro-democracy groups that had its staff charged in the foreign funding case, said in a statement that the waiver “sends the wrong message to the Egyptian government.”

Bahey el-din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, says the message is clear: “The United States doesn’t care about human rights. This was the attitude under Mubarak, they changed a little after revolution, and now the US has come back again to its original position.”

It isn’t just human rights advocates who were disappointed with the decision. Patrick Leahy, a senator from the state of Vermont who has long been critical of US support for Egypt on human rights grounds, said, “Waiving the new conditions on democracy and human rights is regrettable, and handing over the entire $1.3 billion at once to the Egyptian military compounds the mistake by dissipating our future leverage.”

But leverage on Egypt’s generals and over their human rights record may only be one small part of the US administration’s calculations. In addition to wanting maintain the strategic partnership with Cairo over issues like Iran’s influence and Israel’s security, officials in Washington also have more domestic concerns to balance: keeping defense industry jobs during a slow economic recovery and, crucially, a US presidential election year.

The military aid to Egypt is largely recycled into the US economy as the Egyptian military spends much of it buying US-made weaponry, such as fighter planes and tank parts. Bloomberg News reported that General Dynamics, a weapons manufacturer, and its subcontractors have 107 employees in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania making tank parts that go to Egypt. These are key battleground states for US President Barack Obama as he seeks re-election. A loss of jobs, especially during a slow economic recovery where unemployment is a primary concern, could be used against Obama by his opponents. Unnamed State Department officials confirmed that this was a primary concern in interviews with the New York Times.

The $1.3 billion is also treated as an important birthright for the Egyptian military. According to a 2009 US diplomatic cable released by the whistleblower group WikiLeaks, Mubarak and Egyptian “military leaders” viewed the US military aid as “ ‘untouchable compensation’ for making and maintaining peace with Israel.”

The same cable said that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense since 1991 and now head of the ruling SCAF, “consistently resists change to the level and direction of [US military assistance].” 

The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates Parliament and seems poised to dominate the writing of the next constitution, has echoed this view, saying that if the status of US aid to Egypt changes, the peace treaty with Israel will be back on the table.

Much might be back on the table soon. For decades Washington dealt with what it believed was a stable Egypt ruled by a dependable ally. His sudden departure from power last February has left US government officials unsure of how to proceed in order to protect their interests in Egypt and the wider region that is undergoing dramatic changes. With an open field of presidential candidates, an Islamist-dominated Parliament and questions surrounding the role the military will play in the future of Egypt’s foreign policy, Washington will soon have to reconcile with a new kind of Egypt and change its policies accordingly to protect its interests.

“There hasn’t been a very thorough strategic re-evaluation of US policy toward Egypt in the last year or so. There have been small tactical adjustments, which is understandable given the fluid nature of what is happening,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank that is reputed to be close to the Obama administration.

“I also think we should steel ourselves for what is likely to be a major renegotiation of the bilateral relations because of the big changes that are taking place,” Katulis told Egypt Independent, adding that the State Department’s decision to waive the democracy conditions is a “tactical punt of the bigger questions of US-Egypt relations down the road until we have better clarity.”

Though Washington would undoubtedly like to maintain its strategic partnership with Egypt, nothing is certain for now. Any major change in Egypt-Israel relations would likely incur heavy consequences for the aid program. If an Islamist-led government were to place restrictions on religious freedoms, the officials in Washington may come under heavy pressure from concerned Americans to stop supporting Egypt.

But restrictions on civil liberties never stopped Washington before from delivering the aid that benefits the US defense industry and military-military cooperation. Hassan, of the human rights organization, says they likely won’t in the future, either.

“See the legislation drafted by the Islamists in Parliament nowadays,” he says, noting that Brotherhood MPs have put forward restrictive draft laws on freedom of assembly and labor organizing, while also backing a government proposal that does not increase freedom for NGOs.

“Most of them don’t encourage the US to look positively at the Muslim Brotherhood [on
human rights issues and democracy issues],” he said.

But for now, the aid keeps coming.

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