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Opinion

How US can use aid to nudge Egypt

American influence in Egypt is dwindling. But the US could still support democracy there by temporarily freezing military aid during the transitional period to be reinstated if the transition includes the Muslim Brotherhood and the new constitution protects minorities.

By Mohamed ElmenshawyOp-ed contributor / August 27, 2013

A poster showing Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi hangs in a popular coffee shop in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Aug. 27. Op-ed contributor Mohamed Elmenshawy writes regarding the US-Egypt relationship: 'The exchange of “aid for cooperation” is no longer working.' The relationship 'must evolve to meet changing circumstances.'

Amr Nabil/AP

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The American relationship with Egypt needs to change if Washington wants to have substantive influence in Cairo. America’s recent strategy in Egypt has been focused on buying Egyptian compliance through military and economic aid, but it seems to have had little effect.

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Nearly two months after the ouster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, President Obama appeared on CNN to affirm that a full revision of the US-Egyptian relationship is now underway by stating, “There's no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened.”

Obama’s remarks indicate a shift in the administration’s near-silent public posture since Mr. Morsi’s ouster. While many have seen Mr. Obama’s reticence as reflective of muted approval, his recent remarks affirm that the decades-old US-Egyptian relationship of “aid for cooperation” is failing. The US has unrivalled access to the inner workings of the new Egyptian regime, but this access does not necessarily translate into more influence over the interim government’s decisions.

America’s $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt has granted the US privileged access to the country. Moreover, the relationship between the US and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, head of Egypt’s now-governing military, is strengthened by his past. He is the first-ever head of the Egyptian military to have trained in the United States, where he was selected to attend the US Army War College in 2006. Mr. Sisi and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have exchanged phone calls on an almost daily basis since Morsi’s ouster.

And yet, this connection has not translated into American influence in Egypt. This lack of influence is evident in the interim government’s reaction to the Obama administration’s understated response to the military crackdown. The US government has taken several key actions to express its displeasure. These steps began before the deadly clashes, starting with the delay of a shipment of F-16 fighter jets bound for Egypt.

Now, the debate over arms sales to Egypt continues, and a group of American congressmen, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, have called for a delay of an Apache helicopter shipment to Egypt.

After the recent violence, Obama cancelled the biannual joint military exercises held with Egypt, which had been scheduled for September. The latest volley came from the US last week, as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont told the Daily Beast that his understanding “is that aid to the Egyptian military has been halted, as required by law.” In actuality, this halt in aid comes in the form of an indefinite delay on the delivery of military equipment. However, the State Department denied any claim that the United States cut off military aid to Egypt.

These steps together were meant to force the Egyptian military to back down, halt its killing of civilians, and thus encourage a national reconciliation. Obama reiterated in his CNN interview, “there was a space right after Mr. Morsi was removed in which we did a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of diplomatic work to try to encourage the military to move in a path of reconciliation. They did not take that opportunity.”

None of these actions have forced the interim government to cease its crackdown or renounce violence against the protestors. Moreover, the Saudi Arabian government has come out openly in support of the military regime in Egypt, and has promised to match any amount of aid cut by the US with an equal aid package of its own.

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