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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.

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The Saudis have also organized support for the new Egyptian regime among fellow Gulf States, recruiting the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to contribute to a $12 billion aid package sent to Egypt directly after Morsi’s removal from power and thus further weakening the leverage of an American aid package.

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Egypt is increasing its independence from American influence elsewhere as well. The US was instrumental in establishing the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and the agreement resulted in joint security cooperation on the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt, Israel, and the US. The US, however, was always likely to be marginalized in this arrangement due to its distance from the region.

Israel and Egypt both claim that the US does not take the Islamist threat in the Sinai Peninsula seriously enough, and together the two countries have started to assert greater control of the region without the US. The accord between the two, both in their rhetoric and security cooperation, reveals the diminishing role of the US even in its traditional role as Egyptian-Israeli peacemaker.

The current strategy is also unpopular in both countries: Eighty-two percent of Egyptians stated in a Pew poll that US aid had a negative impact on the country, and a Gallup poll conducted in the wake of the August violence found that 51 percent of Americans wanted to cut aid to Egypt to demonstrate a tough American stance on the issue.

Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s interim Minister for Foreign Affairs, recently stated that “the relationship between Egypt and the US has been there for a long time. It has been through ups and downs in the past. We hope things will go back to normal promptly.” The relationship, however, must evolve to meet changing circumstances.

The US is faced with a simple choice. It can continue to give aid and accept its lack of influence over Egyptian internal affairs in favor of securing its security interests – from expedited passage in the Suez Canal and use of Egyptian airspace, to extensive cooperation with Egyptian intelligence services. Such a pragmatic policy would be an admission of the importance of interests over principles.

The other option is to cease aid to Egypt and stand with America’s professed principles. In doing so, the US would risk a variety of current security benefits. The choice is not an easy one, but one thing is clear – the exchange of “aid for cooperation” is no longer working.

There is a third choice, however. As the US cannot undo the violence that has already occurred in Egypt, there is a slight opportunity to influence the future of Egyptian politics to be more democratic. One option could be a temporary freeze of military aid to Egypt during the seven months remaining in the transitional period. The US government would communicate with the Egyptian military that the aid would be reinstated at the end of the period if the transition included the Muslim Brotherhood and other nonviolent Islamist groups in democratic processes and elections, and if the new constitution protects the rights of all Egyptians, including minorities like women and Christian Copts.

This gesture would send a strong message to the Egyptian military showing that the US is acting on principle rather than solely preserving security interests in the Middle East.

Mohamed Elmenshawy is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He writes a weekly article in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk. Follow him on Twitter @ElmenshawyM.

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