By Daniel Calingaert and Nancy Okail, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel Calingaert is executive vice president and Nancy Okail is director for Egypt at Freedom House. The views expressed are their own.
An impending delivery of F-16 fighter jets and components of 200 Abrams tanks to Egypt has run into a barrage of criticism and triggered calls to cut off all U.S. aid to the country. These calls are excessive. Aid should continue, because the United States has a critical interest in supporting a democratic transition in Egypt. But the U.S. cannot do that effectively unless it overhauls its approach.
Three major changes are needed. First, U.S. assistance should be tied to progress toward democracy. We should hold back until the government of President Mohamed Morsy respects the fundamental rights of Egyptians and democratic principles. It has hardly done so. The government has harassed its media critics, most recently launching an investigation against popular comedian Bassem Youssef for making fun of President Morsy, and limited free expression in the new constitution, which prohibits “insulting or showing contempt toward any human being.”
The new constitution was rammed through the Constitutional Assembly and put to a snap referendum last month. Rather than build a broad consensus on the institutional structures for a new Egypt, the constitution drafting process alienated significant segments of Egyptian society, including secularists and Christians. It also coincided with a blatant power grab by Morsy, who issued a decree, subsequently reversed in the face of angry protests, to put his decisions beyond judicial review. He has made unilateral decisions without providing justifications or consulting different political forces, and in response, many of his advisors have resigned over the past two months.
U.S. law makes military aid conditional on the Egyptian government protecting free expression, association, and religion, and due process of law. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to waive these conditions last March, as the law permits, undermined U.S. leverage. The United States should uphold the conditions going forward and suspend military aid if Egypt fails to meet them. It should also criticize Egypt’s human rights abuses during negotiations on economic assistance.
Second, the emphasis on military assistance should be reduced dramatically. At four parts military to one part civilian, the current aid package is a relic of a bygone era, when U.S. military assistance aimed to shore up President Hosni Mubarak’s contributions to regional security and reward a dependable ally. But support for Mubarak undermined U.S. credibility as Egyptians grew increasingly disillusioned with his regime. Today, U.S. interests are best served by democratic reform of Egypt’s institutions, not by strong-man rule. And economic aid will do more for Egypt’s transition and stability than arms shipments.
Neglect of democratic reform has left Egypt unstable. Under the interim military rule following the fall of Mubarak, and now under President Morsy, unrest has persisted and violent clashes have broken out repeatedly. The continued impunity of officials who committed abuses, disregard for minority rights, and concentration of power in the presidency have exacerbated social tensions and political polarization. A U.S. emphasis on military aid and on relations with President Morsy, rather than the Egyptian people, cannot bring stability to Egypt.
The country’s military has taken a less visible role since it turned the reins of government over to Morsy and saw its supreme commander, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, ousted last August, but it retains substantial power. The new constitution removes the military budget from parliamentary oversight and allows military tribunals to prosecute civilians. A presidential decree last month gave the military authority to arrest civilians as well. The military thus continues to hamper Egypt’s democratic progress.
Third, a far greater proportion of U.S. aid should provide technical support to Egyptian civil society organizations, because the government in Cairo is impeding efforts to advance democracy. The government scrutinizes all foreign-funded activities of independent Egyptian groups and blocks such critical elements of a democratic society as public opinion surveys. It denies legal registration to foreign non-governmental organizations and continues to prosecute Egyptian and foreign employees of international groups, including Freedom House, with the trial scheduled to resume tomorrow. These prosecutions intimidate Egyptian NGOs and put them at risk for cooperating with their foreign counterparts.
The current uproar over U.S. weapons deliveries to Egypt should prompt a serious re-think by the Obama administration. The United States needs to revamp its aid policy, which was designed before Egypt’s revolution to bolster an authoritarian ally with little regard for Egyptians’ democratic aspirations. It should stop subsidizing a government that infringes on citizens’ rights and instead give more assistance to independent local groups that strive to build a free society and hold Egypt’s government to account.