Should US suspend military aid to Egypt, to try to speed new elections?

US influence over events in Egypt is scant. But the US does give $1.6 billion a year in aid, mainly to Egypt's military – and some argue that now is the time to use those dollars as leverage to speed new elections and a return to constitutional order. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Anti-government protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, watch a screen showing US President Barack Obama live on a TV broadcast from Washington, speaking about the situation in Egypt.

Now that Egypt’s first democratically elected president has been removed from office by the country’s powerful military, the United States can try to use its leverage to get what it would like see: a return to constitutional order and an elected government, through elections including all of Egypt’s political factions, in short order.

But US ability to influence events and leaders in Egypt is scant, as ex-President Mohammed Morsi's year in power and Tuesday’s coup against him demonstrate.

Although most Egyptians seem to suspect that America’s heavy hand is behind every major move in their country, it is evident that the Obama administration, starting with President Obama, was unable to deter Mr. Morsi from his authoritarian drift over recent months. Nor was it able to dissuade the Egyptian military, with which the US has long ties, from ousting Morsi and arresting him and dozens of other officials from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

On Friday, the military intervened against pro-Morsi rallies across Egypt, with resulting violence claiming the lives of at least six demonstrators, according to news reports.

One explanation for this lack of US influence, some regional experts and critics of US policy say, is that the US has been reluctant to use its main leverage with Egypt – the $1.6 billion in annual aid (most of it military assistance) that makes Egypt the second-largest recipient of US aid, after Israel – to pressure leaders in their actions. The US should suspend that aid now, they say, to make clear to Egypt’s new military-backed powers that the US and the international community are demanding that certain steps – new elections, delivery of a new constitution – occur quickly. 

But for others, America's lack of influence is primarily a result of the little attention the US has paid to Egypt – even as this key Arab ally underwent a tumultuous and region-influencing revolution.

“We’ve been highly disengaged from Egypt over the past few years, and we’ve not built much of a relationship, haven’t been very active with the broad range of actors playing a role in Egypt today,” says Robert Danin, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs who is now a Middle East senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs in Washington. “To the extent that we seem powerless now,” he adds, “it’s in part because we’ve not been clear about what we’ve wanted and the seriousness we attribute to it.”

The US ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, became a stand-out target of anti-Morsi demonstrators in the days preceding the president’s ouster. But if Ambassador Patterson came to symbolize a perceived US acquiescence to Morsi’s accumulation of powers and trampling of basic freedoms, it’s because neither the White House nor the State Department had been very public about US concerns over Morsi’s drift, some analysts say.

Now the US has something of a “second chance,” Mr. Danin says – but he cautions that, especially where the US is starting from, it can’t expect to simply order the results it wishes to see.

“There’s a difference between Egypt accepting our diktats and our having an influence," he says. “I’d argue that when we are engaged we can have tremendous influence.”

What happens in Egypt and its next direction are important enough to the US and its interests in the region that Mr. Obama should speak publicly and clearly about it in coming days, some analysts say.

Others say the US can send the clearest and most powerful signal by suspending aid to Egypt. Indeed, many say the US has no choice but to suspend aid, because the Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that no aid – other than democracy-promotion assistance – can go to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup d’etat.” 

Given that, "a suspension of aid is required by US law,” says Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of Freedom House in Washington. But suspending aid, he adds, “would also serve the purpose of exercising leverage that the US has been far to hesitant to use until now.” What the US must do now, he says, is “push Egypt’s interim government to set a date for presidential and parliamentary elections, respect the fundamental rights of all Egyptians, and bring all major political currents, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, into discussions about the country’s way forward.”

CFR’s Danin agrees that military assistance probably should be suspended. But more important still, he says, would be to lay out to Egyptians a set of “incentives and disincentives” defining what the US expects to see in the weeks going forward – and how the US proposes to help Egypt get there.

“There is a middle ground between simply imposing our will and disengaging,” he says. “We need to work on finding it.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.