US security interests kept Obama from cutting aid to Egypt. What are they?

When Obama, in response to Egypt's brutal crackdown on protesters, refrained from cutting off US military aid, he cited US 'national interests.' Broadly, they boil down to one main idea: stability.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, background, in the center of the largest protest camp of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, that was cleared by security forces, in the district of Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt, Friday.

As President Obama labored this week to explain his cautious response to the Egyptian military’s deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters, he repeatedly cited America’s national security interests in maintaining close ties with Egypt.

The US is “guided by our national interests in this longstanding relationship,” he said in his statement Thursday on the Egyptian security forces’ brutal repression of supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the ousted Islamist president.

Mr. Obama did not enumerate those national interests, but taken together they can largely be boiled down to one word: stability. The US has a keen interest in Egypt’s internal stability, but upheaval in Egypt would also raise questions about broader regional stability.

The overriding interest in Egypt’s stability that motivated successive American presidents to overlook dictatorship and work closely with the country’s autocratic leaders is the same one that prompted Obama to leave $1.3 billion in annual military assistance to Egypt untouched.

Taken separately, those national security interests range from upholding the terms of the US-brokered Egypt-Israel peace treaty – an agreement that has provided the bedrock of regional stability for nearly four decades – to maintaining counterterrorism cooperation with the Arab world’s largest and most influential country.

US national security interests in Egypt extend to seeing the Suez Canal remain open and carrying a significant portion of the world’s petroleum.

At the heart of US relations with Egypt are the 1979 Camp David Accords – from which came the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and which define the amount of aid Egypt receives annually from the US.

As Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President Ford and the first President Bush, notes, the annual aid to Egypt has a specific purpose, which is to “cement” the peace treaty between two crucial American partners in the region. Cutting off the $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt would be “shortsighted,” Mr. Scowcroft says, because it would undermine a treaty that has fostered peace and security in the region.

Some Egyptian analysts of their country’s relations with the US have been more blunt, saying a suspension of the aid could prompt Egypt’s military rulers to “reevaluate” both the accords and Egypt’s relations with Israel.

Indeed, part of Obama’s reluctance to suspend aid to Egypt actually has to do with Israel, America’s closest ally in the region. As US officials are quick to note, Israel’s security would not be enhanced by any step that could erode Egypt’s stability or erode the influence the US has in Cairo.

Israel and a few Arab countries have pressed the Obama administration in recent weeks not to cut off aid to Egypt – one argument being the vacuum left by a less-present and less-influential Washington would likely be filled by Saudi Arabia and other wealthy states that have less interest in Egypt upholding its treaty with Israel.

Israel also has a keen interest in the US maintaining its close counterterrorism cooperation with Egyptian authorities. Like the US, Israel is alarmed by growing lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula and by evidence of Al Qaeda activity there.

Israel, which has been working quietly with Egyptian authorities to address a growing Islamist militant presence along the border between the two countries, would be loath to see more openly acknowledged US-Egyptian cooperation suffer the kind of setback that could accompany a suspension of military aid.

No one knows for sure of course how Egyptian authorities would respond if the US decided to send a stern message by suspending military aid. Some experts say the Obama administration’s decision last month to halt delivery of F-16s had little apparent impact, evidence that nothing the US does seems likely to dissuade Egypt’s military rulers from a path they consider necessary to deal with an existential threat to the country.

But Obama and his national security team clearly remain reluctant to test the impact that such a step would have on US cooperation with the Egyptian armed forces – and on a relationship that has been defined as a key US national security interest for decades.  

As Secretary of State John Kerry said in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in April, “I think the [Egyptian] military has been the best investment that America has made in years in that region.”

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