WASHINGTON -- The United States is withholding $260 million in cash and hundreds of millions in military hardware such as tanks and fighter jets to send a message to longtime ally Egypt that it must return to a democratic path after a military ouster of the elected Islamist president and a brutal crackdown on his supporters, Obama administration officials said Wednesday.
Analysts who monitor U.S.-Egyptian relations said that the move was largely symbolic, however, and leaves untouched key components of an ironclad alliance that’s been in place since Egypt became the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel, in the 1970s.
Five senior administration officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity in accordance with administration policy, said that the cuts come after a review of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion aid package that began in August, at the beginning of a lethal government campaign to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group to which ousted President Mohamed Morsi belonged.
They said the U.S. wouldn’t be delivering F-16s fighter jets, M1 Abrams tank kits, Harpoon missiles and other equipment for a total cost they estimated in the hundreds of millions.
The officials said that the United States would continue supplying parts for military equipment, military training and education, and support for counterterrorism and border security programs for the volatile Sinai Peninsula. In addition, the U.S. will still fund programs for Egyptian civilians that focus on democracy-building, health and education, as well as the development of the country’s private sector.
The tone of the announcement muted the warning embedded in the action, with U.S. officials at every turn stressing that the aid suspension was temporary and subject to “continual review,” and that U.S. officials and their Egyptian counterparts would remain in close contact as Egypt attempts to recover from a turbulent, bloody summer.
“They left the call on a very cordial, professional and positive tone,” one senior administration official said, describing the phone conversation in which Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Egypt’s strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el Sissi, about the aid suspension. The officials stressed that the suspensions were temporary, to be reinstated when Egypt “is represented by an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government based on the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and an open and competitive economy,” as a statement from the State Department put it.
Still, they bristled at suggestions that the cuts weren’t deep enough to change a military that appears bent on re-establishing an authoritarian order in which Islamists and other dissidents are sidelined.
“It’s a pretty clear message that we care about the things we say we care about,” one senior administration official insisted.
Adel Iskandar, an Arab studies scholar who lectures at Georgetown University in Washington, said that the United States doesn’t seem to be pushing for more than a vote, which in Egypt’s current anti-Brotherhood frenzy is likely to cement military rule and Islamist isolation.
Using U.S. leverage to push for real democracy, he said, would mean the reintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood. That idea would be a non-starter not only for the generals, but seemingly also for the Brotherhood, which is locked in what Iskandar called a “do-or-die” existential fight.
“This measure is for the American government to save its face in light of how frightening Egyptian security forces are beginning to look,” Iskandar said of the cuts. “It’s not even a slap on the wrist. It’s a frown.”
The Egyptian security forces’ violent dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins in August left hundreds dead in what Human Rights Watch called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” Morsi supporters retaliated by attacking security forces, government buildings and churches, and the cycle of violence continues. More than 50 people died on Sunday after fresh clashes broke out in several Egyptian cities.
While U.S. officials portray military aid suspension as punitive, Iskandar and other close observers of Egypt’s political landscape say that the ruling generals aren’t likely to feel much of a squeeze, especially with new largesse pouring in from oil-rich Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Gulf powers are eager to buy influence in Arab nations that are still in transition after the Arab Spring uprisings, and they don’t seem to mind thwarting their ally, the United States, in the process.
But with or without regional meddling, analysts say, U.S.-Egyptian relations are too intertwined and mutually beneficial for either side to sever. The United States needs Egypt to uphold the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, police its borders with volatile neighbors, and fight the growing extremist presence in the Sinai. And the Egyptian military would be all but paralyzed without U.S. equipment, logistics and maintenance – all part of a web of contractual obligations that benefits American defense contractors through a mechanism called “cash-flow financing.”
The administration officials said the U.S. would continue to pay the bills of U.S. defense contractors to fill Egyptian military orders but wouldn’t deliver the items; one official said the arrangement would be determined on a “contract-by-contract” basis.
The Obama administration already had halted the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and canceled “Bright Star,” its joint military exercises with the Egyptian army.
“The Americans proved to be very cunning when they tied the Egyptian military to the Camp David arrangement because they knew that nothing was more sustainable, more durable in the Egyptian state than the military,” said Amr Adly, who leads a project at Stanford University on the post-Arab Spring transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Adly said that the Egyptian military doesn’t want the state to go bankrupt and doesn’t want any challenges to its popular support and authority. The U.S. cuts do neither, he said. The Gulf states can be relied upon to keep the coffers full, and foreign aid is so unpopular in Egypt that even a partial suspension of it would only boost the generals’ public standing.
“Part of the popularity and legitimacy of the military is this nationalist sentiment that’s partly anti-American,” Adly said. “And, of course, this is very ironic because everybody knows the military has been, for the past couple of decades, a very close partner of the U.S.”