By Khairi Abaza, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed are his own.
The overthrow of Mohamed Morsi last month left the United States with a dilemma – should it continue to offer aid to Egypt as normal, or should it cut off the about $1.2 billion a year that goes to the military in protest at what is widely seen outside Egypt as a coup?
Certainly, there are have been loud calls from many within the policy community to do the latter, most notably Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who reportedly said last month: “We have to suspend aid to Egyptian military because the military has overturned the vote of the people.”
McCain appears to have softened his position, suggesting instead last week that the U.S. should consider cutting off aid if “they go ahead and crack down in a violent way.” Regardless, the idea is clear: halting assistance would pressure the Egyptian military into handing control of the government back to a civilian administration as quickly as possible.
But such a policy would not be without consequences for the United States. After all, this episode has pushed Egypt to find new allies – and to diversify its sources of armaments and military training.
The reality is that the Egyptian military has not only been a source of stability for the United States in an otherwise turbulent Middle East, but it has also been a cash cow. Currently, the Egyptian military relies on U.S. military equipment, training and services. This reliance means that Egypt is essentially a client of the U.S. military complex, and aid money is in fact re-injected back into the U.S. economy. Cutting off these armaments and services means that these funds will be diverted to Russian, Chinese, or French coffers.
An end to the current relationship would also clearly mean less leverage for the United States, and the diversity that Egypt’s army is currently seeking would mean that no single country could have the type of leverage the United States has over Egypt. The country’s military would be even harder to influence, and given its current power over the country, this is clearly a dangerous prospect.
But an end to the current relationship would also have a direct and deleterious impact on American interests more broadly. An end to aid would threaten the durability of Egypt’s critical peace treaty with Israel, not to mention the current agreement that guarantees the safe and reliable passage of U.S. military ships and equipment through the Suez Canal.
An end to U.S. assistance would also throw into doubt Egypt’s dependability in times of crisis. The U.S. has engaged in countless military exercises with Egypt to prepare for multiple scenarios, and it would be a tremendous (and costly) shame if the U.S. walks away from such an investment.
And U.S. assistance to Egypt also serves as an important nonproliferation tool. It has enabled Washington to maintain a modicum of control over the arm race in the region, a point that is even more important as Iran continues a path that could ultimately see it acquire a nuclear weapon. Should Tehran cross this threshold, Egypt will almost certainly wish to go nuclear as well since it views Iran as a regional threat. With diminished leverage, the U.S. would be effectively powerless to prevent this “nuclear cascade.”
To be sure, the end of U.S. assistance would be inconvenient for Egypt. But it would not be fatal for its military or political system. The army’s commander, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, knows that Egypt would survive without it. That’s why he continues to highlight Egypt’s two centuries-old struggle for national sovereignty and free will – a theme that Egyptians appreciate.
Al-Sisi also knows that this would not be the first time Egypt has switched military alliances. After the 1952 military coup, President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a Western ally until the West refused to fund his High Dam project. He subsequently turned to Moscow for help and became a Soviet ally. Washington was not able to bring Egypt back into the Western fold until 1978, leaving a period during which Nasser’s populism was a source of instability for the region, underscored by the wars of 1956, 1967, 1973 and Egypt’s war of attrition with Israel.
The toppling of Morsi will remain a source of controversy for years to come. But whether it was a coup, a revolution, or a coup-volution matters little now. What is important is that the United States maintains its crucial relationship with Egypt to safeguard the safety and security of the Middle East for years to come. U.S. threats to cut aid only encourage Egypt’s military leaders to seek new allies – allies that will almost certainly prove to be American adversaries in the future. And quite likely not friends of Egyptian democracy, either.