For decades, American aid to Egypt has been a necessary embarrassment. The $2 billion per year paid to the Egyptian dictatorship was more than the price for Cairo to adhere to its peace treaty with Israel. It was also necessary to keep the largest Arab country safely out of the hands of first the Soviet Union and then the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Though the money only enriched the military and the ruling elite, it was still considered something of a bargain. This was no less true after the fall of the Mubarak regime after the Arab Spring protests that placed the government squarely in the hands of the military.
But in the aftermath of Friday’s violence in Cairo in which a mob was allowed to assault and then sack the Israeli embassy without interference from the police and the military, it has now become apparent the Egyptian government has neither the will nor the ability to keep the Islamists in check. This is not merely an egregious breach of diplomatic protocol. It is a wake-up call to the United States that it must place Egypt on notice that Washington is no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to a feckless and faithless ally. This is not merely a troubling incident but a full-blown crisis that shows the time has come to suspend aid to Egypt.
There will be those who will argue this is the worst possible time to put the Egyptians on notice. We will be told the military needs American support more than ever to retain its grip on power and to keep the Brotherhood and the unpredictable Cairo mobs under control. It will be argued that were Egypt to be rejected by the United States, it is possible it would ally itself with Iran or at its Hamas allies in Gaza.
But this is a flawed argument.
Although the Egyptian military has loosened its security on the border with Gaza and made overtures to Iran, it has no wish to find itself in league with the ayatollahs of Iran anymore than they want to be under the thumb of their own Islamists. The generals in Cairo need U.S. aid to continue. But thanks to a succession of American ambassadors who refused to speak frankly about the country’s shortcomings to first Mubarak and now his successors, they have come to believe U.S. taxpayer dollars flowing into their collective pockets will never be shut off. After more than 30 years of being bribed by the Americans, they have come to believe it is their due, and Washington will never, ever call them to account.
The Egyptian military will not act decisively to shut down the anti-Israel violence as well as the incitement against Jews and Israelis in the media until they are convinced they must. Though they are making some of the right noises in the aftermath of the reprehensible violence against the Israeli embassy, there is no reason to believe they are serious about preventing a recurrence of this outrage or doing something about the factors that led up to it.
It may be they feel helpless against the wave of anti-Semitic popular opinion in the streets of their capital. But if that is true, this may be Washington’s last chance to impress upon the military that they must act not just to save the peace with Israel or their alliance with the United States but themselves before the Brotherhood and its allies sweep them out of power.
Since he entered office, President Obama has only had the stomach to pick fights with one country in the Middle East: democratic Israel. But it is high time he started to show some real leadership. It is way past time for Obama to put the Egyptian government and nation on notice that the United States will not go on subsidizing a government that is at the mercy of an anti-Semitic mob. Obama must not merely threaten a cutoff of aid; he must temporarily suspend it until such time as the military shows it has regained control of the situation. Anything less will demonstrate both to Egypt’s government and to the mob that the United States won’t hold them accountable for their actions.