Monday, August 19, 2013

Rejecting The All-Or-Nothing Approach On Egypt

To say that Egypt is a mess is an understatement. After Islamist demonstrations against the removal of President Morsi on July 4th, the military responded with force. In the aftermath of ensuing clashes between protesters and security forces, 1,000 people have been killed. A more peaceful path forward appears unlikely in the next few days.

Much of the debate in Washington DC has focused on whether or not to cut aid to the Egyptian government. In 2012, the US gave Egypt about $1.6 billion dollars in foreign aid. With a slowly recovering economy and anti-American sentiment in Egypt over American support of Morsi the military liberals Israel terrorism one of the adversarial groups in the conflict, some question the utility of continuing to provide aid - even questioning whether aid has an impact on US interests in the first place.

On the other side of the debate, some experts argue that withdrawing aid may hurt day-to-day cooperation between the US and Egypt. It could also have ramifications for Egyptian coordination with Israel over its counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai. Indirectly, withdrawing aid could exacerbate policy gaps between the US (which has expressed "serious concern" over the military's actions) and Israel (which supports the military so long as it creates and maintains stability). Given that the domestic debate in Egypt has reached a fever pitch, legitimate questions remain as to whether a regime who sees the future of the country at stake will be swayed by the US withdrawing foreign aid.

The Obama administration has cancelled a joint military exercise planned for next month and rhetorically put aid on the table by mentioning "further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the US - Egyptian relationship." However, its response otherwise has been tepid. Given the unclear outcome of events in Egypt and a tide of anti-Americanism regardless of what move the US makes, caution is understandable. At the same time, the poster child of the Arab Spring is slowly slipping into the throes of ideological civil war. A failure of transition in Egypt will have ramifications throughout the Arab world and working to prevent it needs to be the priority for the administration.

One middle-ground step the Obama administration can take is to reject the all-or-nothing debate surrounding aid. There are middle-ground options which send a clear signal to those in Cairo who act recklessly with regards to the rights of the people without jeopardizing the long-term US relationship with a critical ally. The Obama administration can work with with Congress to put more stipulations and benchmarks on aid. It can cut aid overall but not withdraw it completely. It can also be more rhetorically assertive in threatening to withdraw aid unless the military can provide assurances of a return to a gradual and peaceful transition process. Each of these options comes with its own costs and benefits, and those with more expertise on Egypt than this blogger can better predict likely outcomes for any given option. However, this administration is unlikely to take drastic action, and this policy is likely well-advised.  

Doing nothing or pulling the plug are not the only policy options in Egypt. A new Middle East requires policymakers to think in new, more creative ways. Restoring influence and credibility in the Middle East will require complex and nuanced policy. Focusing the policy conversation in Washington on these kinds of options is the best way to ensure a speedy stop to the suffering in Egypt and a return to a government accountable to the Egyptian people.