U.S. policy on Egypt has drifted in recent months due to a lack of high-level attention, as the Obama Administration focused on Syria, Iran, Israeli–Palestinian peace talks, and the government shutdown. CNN reported yesterday that the Administration would soon announce a cutoff of aid to Egypt, but the White House denied that report.
Today, White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated that a decision would be announced after Congress and the Egyptian government were notified. He cautioned that it would not be “business as usual” with Cairo.
After the Egyptian army staged a July 3 coup against the authoritarian leadership of President Mohamed Morsi, the Administration announced that it would suspend about $585 million of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance to Egypt that had yet to be disbursed, pending a policy review. After wringing its hands for several months, the Administration now appears to be leaning toward withholding most of that aid—with the exception of aid slated to counterterrorism and border security programs focused on containing Islamist extremist threats, particularly in the Sinai peninsula near the Israeli border.
President Obama has apparently delayed his long-awaited decision, trying to split the difference between the Pentagon, which argues that aid to Egypt furthers U.S. security interests, and human rights activists who contend that Egypt’s new government must be punished for its crackdown against Islamist supporters of former President Morsi. But symbolic half-measures, which Obama too often embraces, are likely to satisfy nobody in Washington or Cairo.
Instead, a partial aid cutoff is likely to further erode American influence in Egypt, which has rapidly declined under President Obama. It risks rupturing ties to Egypt’s military, which shares American concerns about the threats posed by Islamist extremists and offers the best hope of eventually salvaging a stable democratic system in Egypt.
The Administration also appears to be leaning toward maintaining some of the roughly $250 million in economic aid, most of which goes to Egyptian nongovernmental organizations rather than to the government itself. An anonymous U.S. official indicated that the policy would be announced by the end of the week, although he noted that it has repeatedly been postponed.
The New York Times reported that President Obama felt compelled to act after street clashes erupted in several Egyptian cities on Sunday, killing more than 50 people. But it would be a mistake to alter U.S. policy in response to political violence provoked by the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to U.S. foreign policy. This would only encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to escalate its campaign against the new government.
Instead of publicly humiliating Egypt’s military government, which could provoke a backlash against the U.S. and undermine Egyptian compliance with the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Washington should press Cairo privately to remain committed to its roadmap for restoring democracy.
President Obama’s half-hearted, feel-good, symbolic measures are likely to backfire by alienating Egypt’s new leaders and fueling more anti-Americanism among Egyptians, many of whom already distrust the Obama Administration because of its uncritical support for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated regime.