The domestic turmoil in Egypt and its relations with other countries provides a confusing picture that needs delicate unraveling. The decision by the United States to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to its Mid-East ally Egypt confirms that the ouster of the nation’s first democratically elected president, Morsi, was a military coup. Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s is easier said than done. The United States claims it is withholding the aid temporarily until “credible progress” is made toward an inclusive government set up through free and fair elections. However it would have been assumed that the United States would have been supportive of the Egyptian military’s ouster of an Islamist regime.
The American decision has taken a while to come and the catalyst may in part have been influenced by the spiraling violent domestic turmoil in Egypt’s cities and towns. Such an analysis is also not unambiguous. A large portion of the violence directed at Islamists has come from non-Islamist civilians with clashes between Morsi supporters, neighborhood residents and violent gangs while the police and army mainly watch their own facilities. The Islamists refuse to back down because for many, it’s no longer about reinstating Morsi as president but rather it’s about sabotaging the new rulers. This permits the government to say its fighting terrorism. Aiding to the lack of lucidity is the type of American aid that is being withheld. The aid which is being withheld is to fund main battle hardware such as F-16 aircraft, Apache helicopters, M1A1 tanks and anti-ship missiles. Withholding this aid will not influence or turn the tide in the domestic turmoil in Egypt because this type of weaponry is needed for inter-state wars where Egypt has no external state threats. Egypt also has sufficient weaponry of this type to suit her requirements for many decades to come.
Bounding into the miasma also finds that the United States has cancelled its biennial military exercises with Egypt, endangering the United States strategic relations with Egypt based on mutual interests. Egypt gives the United States permission to fly over its territory to supply American troops in the Gulf, allows the United States to move troops and materiel through the Suez Canal without delay and cooperates with American intelligence agencies. Also in the murkiness is Israel because the American aid is deemed as important support for the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. The decision by the United States to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to its Mid-East ally Egypt places tri-lateral Egyptian-American-Israeli ties at their rockiest point in more than three decades.
To unravel the haziness and to comprehend the severity of the unfolding events it is also necessary to step back from the case of Egypt and consider the strategic shifts in the region. American allies in the Gulf are forging ahead with policies at odds with Washington. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, are strong backers of Syrian rebel factions and were openly dismayed when America set aside possible military strikes against Assad’s government. The Gulf states also feel increasingly sidelined as Washington reaches out to their rival, Iran. To be sure, Egypt has other allies who may be able to fill the financial void of America’s decision to cut aid. In fact, Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf Arab partners have provided a critical financial lifeline for Egypt’s new government, pledging at least $12 billion so far and aiding in regional crackdowns on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. American annual aid is only $1.5 billion. Last week Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip in a sign of the importance of the Gulf aid and political backing.
So the Obama administration’s decision may be too little too late, it will have little impact on Egypt’s transition to democracy and it will have no impact on the scheduled November 4 trial of Morsi on charges that he incited the killings of opponents while in office. In the current climate of impunity no-one in Egypt has to worry about consequences because there have not been any independent investigations. On the other hand the Obama administration’s decision may impact its own influence in the region and it may be detrimental to Egypt’s counter insurgency efforts against Islamists in the Sinai. I personally believe that President Obama should consider the origins of the Arab Spring to assist in his policy and decision making about the Middle East. Changes in Egypt will be not be influenced or effected by cutting military aid. Changes in Egypt will be influenced by the bad domestic economic situation.
Dr Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication