Twice last month, the Egyptian military opened fire on supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, killing more than 100 people. A few days ago, the military’s leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, asked Egyptians to go into the streets and give him a popular “mandate” to fight “terrorism.” On Wednesday, the military-backed government ordered security forces to break up protests in Cairo.
The stage is set for a deadly government assault not only against the Muslim Brotherhood but also against the millions of Egyptians who voted for the Brotherhood in elections over the past two years. Combined with the arrests on trumped-up charges of Morsi and others linked to the Brotherhood, the military appears intent on eradicating the organization from Egypt’s politics, jailing its leaders and followers or driving them underground.
Through its continued support of the Egyptian military, the United States is complicit in these acts. Despite our repeated claims of neutrality and our calls for reconciliation, in reality we have taken sides in the burgeoning violent confrontation. We winked at the coup against a democratically elected government, and, most important, we remain the leading provider of assistance to Egypt’s military: Even as violent and undemocratic intentions have become increasingly clear, the administration and Congress are pressing ahead with the annual provision of $1.3 billion in military assistance.
Some supporters of the aid claim that it gives us leverage over the military’s behavior — that fear of an aid cutoff will curb Sissi’s more extreme inclinations and lead the government to moderation. Recent events suggest the opposite. Why should military leaders fear losing aid when the Obama administration did not even abide by U.S. law requiring it to cut off that aid after the coup? The recent delay of F-16 deliveries had no effect.
Egypt’s military knows there has been only one constant in U.S. policy toward its country over the past three decades, including during the turbulence of the past three years: Regardless of who has been in power — Hosni Mubarak, the military, Morsi and now the military again — and how that government has behaved, military assistance has flowed. We didn’t use our military aid to pressure Mubarak to reform; we didn’t use it to pressure Morsi to govern more democratically; and we are not using it now to pressure the military to cease its violent, undemocratic behavior.
Leverage works only if there is a chance that it will be used. Given the United States’ history of unwavering support for the Egyptian military, its threats to end aid have no credibility. At this point, only an actual cutoff or suspension would shape the military’s calculations. To those who argue that we must continue providing aid in the interest of stability, one has only to point to the past three years: Aid has flowed uninterrupted, and just look at all the stability.
Today the most destabilizing force in Egypt is the military itself. It is the greatest obstacle to any hope of political reconciliation and stability.
The Brotherhood’s followers, who just last year chose peaceful competition in an electoral system, now see their leaders hunted down and their comrades killed in the streets — all by a U.S.-backed military. In the United States, commentators call on the Brotherhood to join the political process and, in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, halt “its war with the military.” Yet the Brotherhood and its followers did not choose this war. While the military seeks their extermination, it will be hard for them to believe that they will have a place in post-coup Egypt’s political order.
Our only hope of turning the situation in a more positive direction is to make unmistakably clear to the military that the path it is on will lead to an end of U.S. assistance and international isolation.
Suspending aid now is not merely a matter of principle or even of abiding by our own laws – although that ought to count for something. As a practical security matter, we may pay a heavy price down the road for our complicity in the military’s actions over the coming months.
As a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaida. The Brotherhood renounced violence and terrorism years ago. But that could change in response to the military’s actions.
Who knows how many more the military will arrest, torture and kill in pursuit of its goal of driving the Brotherhood’s followers back underground? In the process, Egypt’s military may create a whole new generation of Islamist fighters, some percentage of whom may turn to terrorism. If and when they do, the United States, as the Egyptian military’s great and unwavering backer, will again become a target.
Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He writes a monthly column for The Washington Post.