Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Obama Suspends Aid to Egypt

In a far cry from President Obama’s 2009 speech at Cairo University, new plans are in the works to further distance the United States from Egypt, a longtime pillar of U.S. national security and partner in the Middle East. An anonymous official in the Obama Administration revealed today that the United States would drastically reduce its $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt, a move borne out of pointed frustration toward Egyptian military leaders.

Coming on the heels of recent clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces, the suspension of aid in some part functions as diplomatic disapproval of the heavy-handed and lethal tactics employed against demonstrators and the increasingly authoritarian behavior displayed by Egypt’s interim leadership—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  Just this Sunday, over 50 people were killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Since the military coup on July 3rd that overthrew President Morsi—Egypt’s first democratically elected president—hundreds of people have been killed and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested during the ensuing social and political unrest. The Egyptian army has detained Morsi in a secret location since his overthrow, and the Ministry of Social Solidarity is on the cusp of banning the Muslim Brotherhood as a civil society organization after a court called for the ban and a freeze on the organization’s assets back in September. Backed by popular outrage, the SCAF is doing everything in its power to suppress both violence and the Islamists that came to power in June 2012.

The decision to slash military aid to Egypt is also a consequence of President Obama’s
Protesters demand President Morsi to step down,
just three days before he was deposed by the Egyptian
military on 3 July 2013. Photo by Muhammad Mansour.
unfulfilled expectations that Egyptian military leaders would set a timetable for parliamentary and presidential elections. While widespread opposition to Morsi’s reign ‘legitimized’ a military takeover in July, the SCAF have sidestepped Obama’s calls to restart a democratic process in favor of addressing what it says are more pressing concerns: growing militancy in the Sinai and civil discord. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood only exacerbates fears that Egypt’s military leadership does not intend to schedule inclusive elections and instead will maintain its influence over post-Mubarak politics. With no visible commitment to a democratic process and the SCAF’s violent suppression of Muslim Brotherhood members and Morsi supporters, reducing most of the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt—save counterterrorism funds—could hopefully convince the interim leadership to change its course.

Underpinning the intentions behind halting American military assistance to Egypt are the possible medium- to long-term consequences of the current unrest. Already mirrored in the Sinai’s spike in militancy that followed Morsi’s disposal, marginalizing potential political actors can give rise to extremism and political violence. If the crackdown continues, the human rights abuses and likelihood of the SCAF’s future meddling in politics will be hard for Egypt’s supporters to ignore. As the recent clashes show, there’s no sign that the military’s tactics to ‘restore normalcy’ will cease, nor will Morsi's supporters give up without a fight.

There’s no doubt that President Obama is attune to these challenges. Scaling back military aid to Egypt’s most powerful institution is a bold move that may provoke more than what is intended. Our relationship with Israel will surely be affected, possibly even extending to the ongoing peace talks with Palestinians. Divesting from Egypt could also give Gulf states more financial influence over Egypt’s political and economic future. There’s even the possibility that President Obama will delay the order for a more opportune moment. But it does say something important when the U.S. moves to cripple a long-time partnership. Whether suspending aid is more of a symbol of frustration or an attempt to weaken the Egyptian military’s capacity to carry out a crackdown, it is one of the few levers of influence the United States has over Egypt's military leadership. In the name of those killed and imprisoned during the unrest, let's hope it's used wisely. 

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