Why The U.S. Can’t Stop The Violence In Egypt

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa

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APTOPIX Mideast Egypt

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa

Thursday morning, President Obama announced that the U.S. military would be suspending joint military exercises with the Egyptian government in light of Wednesday’s brutal crackdown on pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, which claimed the lives of more than 500 Egyptians. Obama did not mention America’s $1.3 billion per year in military assistance to Egypt, but he did say that he’s “asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary” to deal with the slaughter.

It’s tempting to think that a threat of an aid cut off might warn the military government away from continuing attacks on protesters. But, sadly, that’s probably not the case. To say that the U.S. military aid gives the President the power to effectively pressure the Egyptian government is to misunderstand the design and purpose of the aid package itself. There are very compelling arguments for both for cutting off aid and for keeping it, but it’s a terrible truth that neither option will put the U.S. in a position to stop the crackdown.

American aid to Egypt began in 1979 with one goal in mind: keeping the peace between Israel and Egypt. President Jimmy Carter had just negotiated the first-ever true peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state, and part of the U.S. offer was an aid package that would keep the Egyptian military government stocked with new weapons. Egypt’s praetorian class continues to think of aid as principally about Israel, referring to it, according to a Wikileaks-released cable, as “untouchable compensation” for keeping the peace with their northern neighbor.

In return, the generals get one of the largest tank fleets in the world. And, though it’s less well known, they also get rich. The military invests a decent chunk of its aid dollars in military manufacturing that spins off into the civilian commercial market, particularly in automobiles. These military-made machines make up a significant portion of Egypt’s automobile sales.

So that’s the deal: peace in exchange for guns and more wealth. But here’s the problem: that deal is effectively a bribe. When someone who’s being bribed decides they want something more than the bribe itself, then threatening to take away the bribe won’t won’t deter them one bit.

The Egyptian military regime sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to its control over the Egyptian government. Before he was overthrown, President Morsi was engaged in a deliberate campaign to consolidate his power over Egypt’s government, which the military and its moneyed allies saw as a threat to their longstanding political dominance.

The Brothers, for their part, believe they were duly elected and deserve to rule. With neither side interested in backing down, the stage is set for more protests and crackdowns. Or worse: Cairo-based analyst Issandr El Amrani believes the military wants the Muslim Brotherhood to take up arms so they have an excuse for an even deeper crackdown.

The point, then, is that the struggle for control over the reins of power in Egypt is far more important to the generals than the marginal benefits they get from U.S. aid. Losing the economic boost from aid dollars might hurt, sure, but the military controls a massive shadow economy that serves as the base for their wealth. It also probably wouldn’t be to the military’s benefit to start a war with Israel now, but the peace treaty doesn’t end if they lose the aid. It simply removes one barrier to Egypt renouncing the treaty, but the ultimate decision to do so still rests with Egypt’s rulers.

One might argue, more subtly, that there are divisions inside the military government about the wisdom of this crackdown, and the threat of a U.S. aid cut off might strengthen the hand of a more moderate internal faction. That’s certainly possible — I don’t claim any special insight into the different personalities inside the Egyptian military — but it seems unlikely for two reasons. First, the most prominent “moderate” member of the coup government, Vice President and former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, resigned in protest over Wednesday’s violence, suggesting he didn’t believe he could make a difference from the inside. Second, Egypt’s so-called lliberals — the people who nominally support democracy and so should oppose the killing of protestors — have shown a disturbing tendency to side with military crackdowns on Islamists in the past several months.

It doesn’t seem likely that the crisis in Egypt will end today. Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who studies democratic transitions and coups, believes that the Egyptian military is reading from a well-thumbed authoritarian playbook in which murdering civilians becomes part of a deliberate strategy for undermining the opposition’s base of support. It may well be that the U.S. cannot allow itself to be complicit in such cold-blooded killing. But if President Obama wants to play a productive role in actually stopping it, he cannot afford to let his thinking come to center on America’s aid.