With more than 500 people dead as a result of the Egyptian army’s brutal assault on Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo, it is a little late in the day for President Obama to be issuing standard condemnations. Even canceling the annual Bright Star military exercise, while undoubtedly the right call (it would have been a travesty to see U.S. personnel exercising with Egyptian soldiers not long after they had slain all these civilians), does not go far enough.
Up until now I have been against canceling U.S. military aid to Egypt, amounting to $1.3 billion a year, because I thought it was important to preserve the leverage that aid buys us. Now, however, it is clear that the U.S. has no leverage at all.
The Obama administration has been quietly advising the generals behind the scenes to de-escalate the conflict in Cairo. Instead the generals ordered armored vehicles and troops to assault the sit-ins, and never mind the casualty count. At this point it is not clear what purpose U.S. aid serves beyond associating the U.S. with the heinous actions of what looks increasingly to be a military dictatorship.
The aid is designed to buy peace between Egypt and Israel, but there is scant chance of the military regime initiating hostilities against Israel–it is too busy making war on its own people. I am under no illusion that an aid cutoff would influence the Egyptian army; it will survive on subsidies from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
Nor am I under any illusions about the nature of the opposition the army is facing–the Muslim Brotherhood during its time in power showed, as if any proof were necessary, that it is a power-hungry, Islamist organization with no respect for democratic principles.
Faced with a choice of unpalatable adversaries, the U.S. would be well advised to stick by its principles–the rule of law, the right to protest, free elections, and all the rest. If we continue to fund the Egyptian military, however, it will make it appear as if the U.S. supports this bloody crackdown–and it could make the U.S. complicit in the emergence of a new threat from violent Islamism.
Al-Qaeda, recall, has its roots in an earlier era of Egyptian repression against the Islamists; the current head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was once tortured in an Egyptian prison. The Egyptian military seems hell-bent on fostering another outburst of violent radicalism, and there is little the U.S. can do to stop them. But at least we don’t have to give our stamp of approval to this misguided and ruthless crackdown.