Apparently, when it comes to Egypt, once burned does not make some American officials twice shy. The surprise of both the Arab Spring and President Mubarak’s rapid fall do not seem to have shaken their faith that a quick deal with Egypt’s military leadership, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), will benefit America. They are wrong.
To preserve the generous flow of American military aid upon which so much of its hierarchy and prestige depends, the Egyptian military is attempting to sell itself as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament. Giving in to the SCAF’s demands may prove to be severely short-sighted, achieving neither a blunting of parliament nor progress on fundamental human rights, including the freedom of religion and expression.
Cognizant of the Egyptian public’s negative views of the U.S. and Israel, and the manner in which the Muslim Brotherhood stoked those animosities in its rise to power, the Egyptian military has little interest in challenging the Brotherhood on these contentious issues. Furthermore, the Egyptian military has never in its history shown an interest in human rights. In fact, it has often been a leading part of the state apparatus suppressing them. No compelling reason exists to change that predilection. Additionally, contrary to widely held views in the United States, the relationship between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood is far more nuanced than most suspect.
When it comes to the Arab world’s most important country, the United States is at a tipping point. Since 1979, the United States has given Egypt some $1.3 billion a year in military aid. In 2012, in a clear demonstration of bipartisan support for such measures, Congress tied that aid to progress by the Egyptian government to support human rights and freedom of expression. The U.S. Secretary of State can waive the requirement on national security grounds, however. Supporters of continuing the military aid unfettered reframed the issue as being about American jobs. If the aid is held up, it is reported that Egypt might miss payments to U.S. defense companies. It now seems all but certain that Secretary Clinton will issue the waiver.
Egypt’s economy continues to decline. Hard hit by the global economic downturn and the violence of the Arab Spring, the new parliament appears to have no ideas about economic liberalization or how to attract foreign investment. The tourism industry, Egypt’s largest earner, is in the doldrums with no relief in sight. Both the military and Egypt’s elected representatives are blaming foreign powers for Egypt’s bleak situation. This does not bode well for future relations with Israel or the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty upon which U.S. military aid to Cairo is predicated. Giving in to the military’s demands will set back internal efforts to reform the sclerotic Egyptian economy.
The expected resumption of the aid comes after the weeks-long crisis sparked by the criminal charges filed by the Egyptian government against representatives of pro-democracy NGOs from the United States and other countries. The charges were condemned by U.S. leaders from across the political spectrum and unleashed disturbing levels of anti-American language in Egypt.
Perhaps it was naïve to think that in the wake of Mubarak’s rule, a free and democratic Egypt would emerge without a long struggle. An insistence on pro-democracy measures could very well prove to be a vital ingredient for Egypt to create and sustain public and private sector institutions that could drive the development of its economy, which would lead to greater prosperity and, hence, stability. Minus that, Egypt is worse off than ever before, with both the military and the Islamist-dominated parliament resorting to base populism and anti-West and anti-Israel rhetoric to shift attention away from their failure to successfully lead the country.
It would be useful to explore conditioning future military aid to Egypt on progress toward fundamental human rights, including the freedom of religion and expression. The Egyptian military will continue to play a dominating role in the running of the Egyptian state and progress in these areas is nearly the only hope for future prosperity and hence stability. If Egypt is not on a path to progress, the current decline will continue if not accelerate. And, in decline, Egyptian instability will likely have the gravest of consequences for the region.