The Obama administration continues to deliberate over whether the U.S. should continue its policy of providing roughly $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. Many argue that the U.S. gets a lot for its money – priority passage through the Suez Canal, military sales and insurance that Egypt will continue honoring its peace treaty with Israel. But others say that the U.S. is losing credibility in the region as a champion of human rights and that it’s time to cut off aid until Egypt ends its suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary recently spoke with Charles W. Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, one of the NGO’s found guilty by an Egyptian Court of charges of using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country. She asked him why he believes it is time to stop the aid to Egypt’s military.
Hilleary: You say that the U.S. needs to “walk the walk” and cut off aid to Egypt’s military. Why?
Dunne: Well, I have believed for some time that with the increased repression of civil society, for example, in Egypt, the United States should express its displeasure by suspending all aid to the Egyptian government, and I said this in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East/North Africa a few weeks ago.
“…I would argue is that our interests lie very much in a return to a stable, democratic system, and that military dictatorship in Egypt – with our support – is going to lead us to a much worse situation down the road.” – Charles W. Dunne, Freedom House
I think the case is even more powerful now that we are simply subsidizing tyranny, which is taking place in Egypt. People are being arrested en masse. Emergency law has been reinstated. The military is engaging in severe repression of human and civil rights, and I think the relationship as it has gone on for the last 30 years is simply unsustainable.
Hilleary: We give $1.3 billion a year in military aid, which comparatively, in the big scheme of things, is a drop in the bucket. But there are those who argue that we get an awful lot back for our “dime” – priority rights with the Suez Canal, keeping relations between Israel and Egypt smooth, honoring earlier agreements. I mean, what are the risks? If you had to step out of your body and look at the other side of the argument, is it risky business?
Dunne: Well, when you are fundamentally trying to change the relationship between two countries that has existed for 35 or more years, it’s always a risk. People’s expectations are going to be disappointed. There’s going to be anger. But I think ultimately, it’s going to be good for the United States and Egypt to take a look at where we are going on a bilateral basis in the future.
I mean, yes, there are risks. The military currently is furious at us for our seeming support of the Muslim Brotherhood in the past and lack of rapid endorsement of their [the military’s] actions. I think the risks that people have identified in the relationship are all very real, if that relationship were changed.
But what people have to remember is that it’s fundamentally Egypt’s interest to keep that relationship going. It has no interest in shutting down the Suez Canal, which would be a political and economic disaster for Egypt. If it were to break off the treaty between Egypt and Israel, a) there is no way they can go to war against Israel, and b), they would find a lot of their friends in the international community deserting them, not just the United States.
So I think a lot of the fears of what the Egyptians might do are pretty overblown. I think they would be seeking ways to repair that relationship very quickly.
Hilleary: There is also the argument that with the money that is provided to Egypt, Egypt uses that money to buy equipment and training from us, and that this would have a negative impact on our economy. How real is that concern?
Dunne: Well, it’s very true that U.S. defense contractors who provide equipment, training, logistical support and so on to the Egyptian military would suffer if those contracts were suspended – or ended. But I don’t think I have to say that that has got to be deciding factor in our foreign policy approach to Egypt. I mean, the question ultimately has to be whether we are comfortable supporting a military regime that is engaged in such terrible abuses, and what do we actually get out of that. How is that in our interests?
And what I would argue is that our interests lie very much in a return to a stable, democratic system, and that military dictatorship in Egypt – with our support – is going to lead us to a much worse situation down the road. And I really think that’s a much more important factor as we are looking at this.
Hilleary: So what do we need to do? Do we use aid as an incentive?
Dunne: I think it is possible to use aid as an incentive and as a deterrent to bad behavior. I mean, a lot of focus has been on the potential of U.S. suspension of aid , and I think that suspension of our small economic aid would be not important to the Egyptian government. Suspension of the military aid would be important because of the implications it would have for the future of Egypt’s own military, its readiness, its operational capability and so on – not to mention the political optics of this whole thing.
There are lots of other things that the United States can do in terms of aid that could be an induce to Egypt moving towards democratic stability. We are doing some of this already: Supporting their bid for an IMF loan package, which the current government may be less interested in now with Saudi and other support flowing in. But they need U.S. support for international investors to come in. They need trade agreements. They need U.S. assurances that Egypt is a safe place to go as a tourist – that is a huge slice of their democratic economy. All of these things are either inducements or “sticks” that can be used to shape Egyptian attitudes towards how it’s going to go forward politically.
Hilleary: It seems to me that ever since the Arab Spring began, that we are constantly put into a position where our foreign policy is challenged -or different aspects of our foreign policy are challenged. Are we all about our strategic interests? Or are we about promoting human rights and democracy? And there seems to be tension between the two.
Dunne: There is a tension between the two, and I think that the main reason that there’s tension between the two is that we are engaged in a very traditional view of diplomacy that doesn’t recognize that promoting democratic change is a strategic interest of the United States. Promoting human rights in these countries is a strategic interest of the United States. And I think in many cases, you can both speak out on human rights violations and promote political reform and still maintain productive relationships with the countries in question.
Now, I think in recent years the United States has been scared off this position. They are much more comfortable with stable relationships that are managed by the political elites in the two countries. But again, as we have seen with the fall of Mubarak, that’s only going to help the United States for so long. I think the upheavals that could come down the road in places like Egypt if these basic problems are not addressed are much worse than we have seen up till now. And that should be cause for concern for every U.S. policy maker who has to be thinking, “Is there a better way?”
Hilleary: When you think of it, if everybody in the Middle East had a chicken in the cook pot at night, how different would things have been?
Dunne: That’s right. And if the U.S were seen to be on the side of economic reform, political freedom, social justice, how different would our image in the region be?
Click here for an alternative view on the issue by The Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.