With the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the US holds sway over Egypt’s political future thanks to its strong ties with a military it helped build over three decades, experts said.
Egypt watchers said the massive US$1.3-billion annual US military aid package to the country has largely paid off over the years — yielding cooperation on counterterrorism, the Middle East peace process and safe passage through the Suez Canal. Many warned against bowing to calls for freezing the US funds.
“There are tremendous risks,” Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security said. “At the very least, you need to keep military-to-military exchanges and contacts because you never know how valuable those relationships might be in the future.”
Scores of Egyptian officers have conducted joint operations with their US counterparts, studied at US war colleges and developed personal relationships with US officers.
Washington is keen to avoid repeating past mistakes on Pakistan, from which it cut military aid in 1979 and the 1990s over Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program, only to find itself with only very limited ties to the Pakistani military in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Yet Elliot Abrams, a senior US Department of State official under former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said Washington should use the aid as leverage to counter any undemocratic moves.
“We’re not going to pay for the suppression of democracy,” he told a congressional hearing this week. “Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional.”
The Bush administration sought to condition parts of its aid package to human rights progress in Egypt, but those efforts were “not particularly effective” because Bush’s war on terror trumped its freedom agenda, Exum said.
Washington has given Egypt an average total of US$2 billion per year, making it the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
“It was always going to be very hard to cut the aid anyway, because the way it was written into the Camp David Accords, if you cut the aid to Egypt, that is tantamount to canceling the agreement,” Kent State University professor Joshua Stacher said.
However, for now, the peace treaty at the heart of Israel’s national security strategy appears to be safe, with Egypt’s newly ruling military vowing to abide by the agreement as it promised to transition toward more democracy.
A 2009 secret diplomatic cable released by whistleblower WikiLeaks noted that Mubarak and Egyptian military leaders viewed US military assistance as the “cornerstone” of ties between the two militaries and as “untouchable compensation” for keeping the peace with Israel.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs a panel that oversees foreign assistance, said on Friday that the lavish aid package could be “at risk” if the military thwarts a democratic transition.
Stacher said the military, which has been a major force in Egyptian regimes since it overthrew the monarchy in 1952, has benefited a great deal from billions of dollars in funding with virtually no strings attached.