Since January 2011, Egypt has witnessed chaos. An autocratic leader has been overthrown after thirty years, a military-led transition has produced contested constitutional declarations and parliaments, political violence has raged in the streets, the first democratically elected president took power and was himself overthrown, and the media and rights organizations have seen both unparalleled freedom and renewed repression. Throughout this period of instability, one thing has remained constant: the United States’ financial support of the Egyptian military. The US has been sending military aid to Egypt since the 1970s, reaching its current level of $1.3 billion per year in 1987. The continuation of foreign military financing (FMF) to Egypt is detrimental to the prospects for democracy in the country and contributes to severe human rights abuses; it should have been suspended long ago. But neither the Obama administration nor future governments is likely to cease sending Egypt the second-greatest military funding package in the world any time soon.
Democracy Prevention and Human Rights Abuses
If American military aid has created such a powerful partnership in the Arab world and stability in the region, why should it discontinue funding? I will discuss two primary reasons here, though many more arguments may be made. First, American payouts have helped solidify the military as the most powerful organization in Egypt, at the expense of civilian governing institutions. The military’s influence during Mubarak’s reign grew to the point that many believed that the generals might rebel if Mubarak’s successor was chosen from the civilian elite. Without self-sufficient governing institutions and civilian control of the military, efforts at democratization will be halting and contested. In the wake of this summer’s coup, there are virtually no civilian organizations with the capacity to govern, leaving the military with a firm grasp on power. American support for the Egyptian military has helped to erode civilian institutions and oversight to the point that civilian democracy is no longer a strong possibility for the next several years.
Second, the two military-led governments since Mubarak’s ouster have been among the most repressive in the country’s history. More than 12,000 civilians were tried in military courts in 2011 alone, greater than the total number under Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Throughout the tenure of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, the United States consistently supported the military financially, even after the NGO crisis in early 2012 which resulted in the trial of fifteen US citizens in absentia. The US continues to support the military-backed interim regime in the aftermath of the July 2013 coup, as the military has resumed its crackdown on journalistic freedom, killed hundreds of protestors Cairo, and excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and other prominent groups from political activity. Moreover, the “leverage” provided by the FMF agreement appears to be non-existent. While the Obama administration has expressed concern over the military regime’s abuses, it shows neither the will nor the ability to meaningfully affect conditions in Egypt. Continued military aid empowers an institution that retards democratization and impugns human rights norms.
Not Any Time Soon
Despite the many arguments for cutting military aid to Egypt, it is unlikely that the US will end the FMF agreement any time soon. First, the US receives tremendous strategic benefits from the FMF program, including use of Egyptian airspace and preferential passage through the Suez Canal. Even though the US’s on-the-ground military activity in the region is winding down, it still relies on passage through Egypt for unconventional operations and naval superiority. An end to America’s right of transport through Egypt would hamper its ability to monitor and combat terrorist organizations in the region, which presents security risks that the US is unwilling to take.
Second, American aid to Egypt signals commitment to Israel. It is no secret that Egyptian aid is conditional on maintaining its peace treaty, and ending the aid relationship may make Israel feel more vulnerable in the region. Especially in today’s climate of chilly US-Israeli relations, American politicians are loath to take away an important foundation of Israel’s security. Regardless of the actual likelihood of war between Egypt and Israel, the peace treaty and accompanying military aid are meaningful symbols of dedication to regional security and stability, which the US will continue to uphold.
Third, the Egyptian military is ruthless in fighting radical Islamist groups. The military has cooperated with the US throughout the War on Terror, attempting to control the sparsely-populated Sinai and Upper Egypt. American aid is a crucial pillar of Egypt’s anti-terrorism operations, which help to prevent Sinai from becoming a terrorist safe haven. Furthermore, counterterrorism efforts are seen as necessary for maintaining domestic stability and averting civil war. American aid will continue to fuel Egyptian counterterrorism operations, and will be used to demonstrate dedication to security for both Egypt and Israel.
A final and more subtle reason for the continuation of military aid is that Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion FMF package is required to be spent on orders from American defense firms. With the downsizing of the US military, the defense industry relies on international orders. Egypt receives the second-greatest military aid package in the world, which represents a massive source of business for American arms and equipment manufacturers. The American defense lobby, one of the most powerful in Washington, has put significant pressure on politicians to maintain Egypt’s massive funding package. An end to Egypt’s aid would mean a major loss of jobs in American manufacturing, a politically unpalatable prospect for any administration.
While a strong moral and political case can be made for discontinuing Egypt’s military aid, it seems an unlikely prospect. There is tremendous pressure on politicians to maintain the strategic benefits of the FMF program, which facilitates operations in the Middle East, promotes peace between Egypt and Israel, and effectively subsidizes the American arms industry. In this political climate, even military rule and human rights violations are not enough to warrant suspension of the lucrative military aid program.