The military’s coup in Egypt has placed the American political establishment in a bind. Many observers insist that the Obama administration must either formally condone the military takeover or call it a “coup,” which would require a cutoff of American aid, as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has advocated.
But this semantic debate misses the larger point. While a minority of Congressional representatives bicker with the White House, State Department and Pentagon over the definition of a “coup” and what the Obama administration must do to comply with federal law, the Egyptian military has already cleverly satisfied many of the conditions to keep the aid flowing — namely, it has installed a civilian-led government and set a timetable for elections.
This window dressing shouldn’t hide the fact that a coup took place, nor should it stop the United States government from reacting to it as the law prescribes.
If Obama wants American rhetoric about democracy to be taken seriously in the wake of a military intervention, aid to Egypt’s army has to be on the chopping block, as our laws state. Egyptians are already suspicious of American intentions — and they will be even more skeptical of America’s goals if we fail to respect our own legislative checks on foreign assistance as they try to build their own democracy.
Continuing aid as if nothing happened would reinforce the perception among Egyptians that all America cares about is maintaining good ties with unaccountable generals and that President Obama’s policy has little to do with building democratic institutions and empowering the “masses” as his administration so often claims.
Indeed, the generals’ latest intervention is more insidious and duplicitous than their role after they nudged Husni Mubarak from the presidency in 2011. The heads of the armed forces are selling nationalism to the population while remaining above the law.
Egypt’s generals do not wish to govern. Their calculation is that so long as they are not visibly running the country, they are safe. And they have learned that it is better to play the role of fire department while letting civilians of different political stripes assume the role of permanent arsonists.
The army has shown that it is happy to wield influence while veiling its power. The generals watched their existing and new privileges formalized in the flawed Constitution that Muhammad Mursi pushed through without public debate. All the while, the military’s budget remained an institutional secret away from the glare of public scrutiny. A future parliament was forbidden to legislate against it. As the problems multiplied and the country teetered, the defense minister feigned political neutrality and ambiguously implied that intervention was an ever-present option.
Having pitted the secular revolutionaries against the Muslim Brothers, the generals have successfully divided the coalition that overthrew Mubarak in 2011 and they now stand atop the only organization in post-Mubarak Egypt that is able to create political realities on the ground.
The generals may miscalculate or overreach one day. They may even come up against an uprising that overruns them, given their continuing disregard for providing bread, freedom or social justice. But until that time, they will remain focused on sapping the authority of the state’s civilians so that the military remains structurally advantaged against either elected politicians or the rest of society, who will continue to labor under stagnating political and economic conditions.
And all the while, despite this decidedly undemocratic structure, American aid is likely to keep flowing, along with generous donations from authoritarian anti-Muslim Brother governments in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.
In spite of its own low bar, the US government also made clear that cutting aid to Egypt would hurt American interests. This is unsurprising, given the United States’ long-standing relationship with Egypt’s army consummated by the 1979 Camp David Accords, America’s need to use the Suez Canal, Cairo’s assent to US airspace requests, as well as intelligence and military cooperation.
Some centrist policy analysts have had moral qualms about this situation and are now calling for American aid to be suspended temporarily because of Egypt’s “soft coup.” It’s very convenient to make such moralistic calls when American aid to Egypt has already been disbursed for the current fiscal year and the next payment won’t be due until next year. Furthermore, American allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have already issued pledges of $12 billion to shore up the new Egyptian government.
But the most disingenuous part of the entire aid suspension debate revolves around the “masses” that the Obama administration speaks of in such glowing terms. Nearly all American aid remains attached to the most unaccountable force in the political life of Egyptians at a time when there are growing calls in Cairo by the protest movement to cut all American aid to Egypt.
By financing the armed forces to the tune of $1.3 billion per year, the US government sends a bipartisan message that its support lies where it invests its money — much of which actually never reaches Cairo but is channeled back to the American arms industry in states like Ohio, where components for M1A1 Abrams tanks and other military hardware are produced. Thus, cutting American aid would effectively trim the subsidy Washington provides to these domestic industries. Those lawmakers defending aid to Egypt aren’t being realists; they’re protecting their districts, constituents, and the corporations that donate to reelection campaigns.
While the voices of Egyptians and the mobilized masses seem to matter so much when popularly impeaching an elected president or a long-time dictator, the voice of those same masses when it comes to calls for cutting off American aid seem to resonate much less in Washington — affirming many Egyptians’ belief that America has double standards and damaging the United States’ image at a crucial moment in Egypt’s history.