Three of the foreign policy analysts I esteem the most–Robert Kagan, Elliott Abrams, and John McCain–argue that Egypt has just experienced a military coup and accordingly under U.S. law the Obama administration must suspend military aid until constitutional governance is restored.
They are clearly right that Egypt has experienced a military coup, albeit a popular coup. They are right, too, about the danger of indefinite military rule. But for the time being, at least, I believe the dangers of cutting off aid outweigh the benefits of doing so. Indeed it is hard to think of any immediate benefit, since an aid cut-off would hardly compel the generals to give up power.
The new government in Cairo has just received $8 billion in pledges from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with no strings attached. That far outweighs the $1.5 billion a year that the U.S. provides. All that an American aid cutoff at this point would achieve would be to alienate the Egyptian military and–more importantly–the opposition parties which backed Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow.
Liberal Egyptians are already convinced that the U.S. is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood because of the failure of President Obama and his ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, to speak out forcefully against Morsi’s illegal power grab while in the presidency. An aid cutoff now, after Morsi has been overthrown, would only serve to completely alienate our natural allies without winning over the Muslim Brotherhood, which is ideologically opposed to the United States and always will be. An aid cutoff would also take away a major reason for Egypt to abide by the Camp David Accords, which it did even while Morsi was in power. Thus President Obama is right to avoid using the “c” word in public, no matter how much rhetorical legerdemain is required to avoid speaking honestly about what has transpired in Egypt.
Rather than cut off aid, the U.S. should use the leverage that the aid gives us to push for a better long-term outcome that stresses the content of democracy–rule of law, free media, vibrant opposition parties–rather than simply a winner-takes-all vote, which is how Morsi saw his slim electoral mandate. Behind the scenes, the U.S. should be working to help the more liberal parties so that, when the next election comes, they will be able to beat the Muslim Brotherhood fair and square. (For more details of what I have in mind, see this Policy Innovation Memo co-authored with Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution, outlining the need to reinvigorate the U.S. government’s capacity for political warfare.)