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Egyptian army soldiers stand guard in front of the Egyptian museum in Cairo

The United States is still undecided on whether it should continue providing $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt.  President Barack Obama says he doubts any U.S. action – or inaction – will have much impact on Egypt’s military, which appears determined to put down supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.  So what factors should Washington be taking into consideration as it debates what to do next?  And what is at stake?  VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary posed the question to Robert Satloff, executive director, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who says the U.S. should continue doing what it has been doing all along.

Satloff:  Well, there are huge interests at stake.  One can list a litany of very specific security interests, but  more broadly, there is a moment of enormous uncertainty throughout the Middle East today, where American interests and what the administration is trying to achieve is being pushed back on numerous fronts, whether it’s in Syria or Iraq or the tide of various transitions after internal change in key Arab countries.  And America has quite few tools to advance its interests.  Our tools are limited.  Our partners are reeling, and the fundamental issue here is at a moment when there is so much being pushed on the United States, when our interests are under pressure on so many fronts, the wisest course of action in dealing with the Egyptian situation is to maintain what leverage we have, maintain what connections we have, in the hope that they can before long be put to advance American interests more effectively.

“…for us to suspend aid, cut aid, put it into a trust fund, you name it, would send the message, ‘You’re on your own…’” – Robert Satloff, The Washington Institute

Hilleary:  It seems ever since the start of the Arab Spring, the U.S. has been torn between its own security interests and the human rights values we say we want to promote.  How do we resolve the two?

Robert Satloff

Robert Satloff

Satloff:  I wouldn’t call them our own personal security interests.  These are shared interests that we have had with other regional states – but it is true to say that there has been a tension, and I think the tension is really the result of a sort of superficial assessment of what democratic evolution and political change is all about.  This takes time.  This takes time in the best of circumstances – it took the United States 80 years till we had a civil war. We figured out to enfranchise part of our citizenry, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that women were franchised.  And we are still dealing with issues here.  I’m not suggesting that we are talking two centuries in the Middle East, but it takes more than a few months.  It takes institutions.  It takes education. It takes a lot of factors.  And I think we put too much and too quick of an emphasis on elections as the sine qua non of democratic change.

And if we had done that a bit differently, then our values and our interests might have been better aligned throughout this period.

Hilleary:  $1.3 billion is not a whole lot in the big scheme of things, but what does it do for Egypt and for us?

Satloff:  $1.3 billion is certainly a lot if you had it, and if you had it and lost it, it’s certainly a lot too.  It’s certainly not a lot in relative terms, in terms of the Egyptian GDP and in terms of what other countries are willing at this moment to substitute for Egypt.  But it is a lot in what the Egyptians seek from the United States, which is essentially the procurement budget for advanced weapons systems and advanced training.  There aren’t many places where the Egyptians can go shopping for these things.  You need a deep and years-long partnership with a major power in order to procure such weaponry and the training and technology that the Egyptians are looking for.

We benefit in a sort of mercenary way, we benefit from being a provider of this.  Our defense industry benefits.  But we benefit in a broader sense by being the indispensable partner to the most significant military force in the Arab world.  And we benefit in a larger sense in that the partnership is a two-way street.  I mean, the Egyptians do things for us and we do things for them.

Now, this is not to say that either we or they are immune from the world of politics.  Not at all. But it is to say that we should recognize what this assistance is really, fundamentally all about.

Hilleary:  If we were to cut that aid, what do you believe the repercussions would be?

Satloff:  There are different formulations that various parties have put forward, from suspending the delivery of certain articles, renegotiating the content of the aid, suspending in the next fiscal year a portion of the aid, putting it into a trust fund pending future political developments.  There are lots of different ideas.  The key point is the political message that we are sending.  And there is no cute way to square this.  At this moment in time when the Egyptian leadership, Egyptian military thinks it is engaged in a life-or-death struggle against the Islamic element in Egyptian politics, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, for us to suspend aid, cut aid, put it into a trust fund, you name it, would send the message, ‘You’re on your own.  We are distancing ourselves from you.  This partnership itself is something that is now under review.’  And that’s just not in our interests.

Click here for an alternative view on the issue by Freedom House’s Charles W. Dunne.

Cecily Hilleary

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.

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