When the Egyptian military effectively overthrew the authoritarian but elected Muslim Brotherhood government last week, it did seem to be a marginal improvement, and the Obama administration has recognized it as such. The U.S. has provided the strongest support by its reticence: It hasn’t called the coup a coup.
Such a judgment, which will be made by State Department lawyers, is crucial because the U.S., thanks to a clause included in government funding bills since the 1980s, cannot provide most types of foreign assistance to a country where the military has seized power.
If the president’s State Department decides that the Egyptian military has violated that clause, aid to Egypt — which amounts to $1.5 billion per year, $1.3 billion going to the military — must be frozen and cooperative military programs and equipment sales must cease. The interim president has announced that constitutional amendments and legislative elections will occur over the next six months. Under current U.S. law, aid could then be resumed.
Our support for the military is a lever we would temporarily lose and permanently weaken if we cut off all support until a new government has been elected — with no clear benefits except the maintenance of a policy the U.S. has already waived on many occasions. As a White House official rightly stated, a suspension of aid “would not be in our best interests.”
The Egyptian military controls the Suez Canal and is crucial to the security of the Sinai Peninsula and the maintenance of the Camp David accords (which condition aid to the Egyptian military on its commitments to Israel, and by which the army continues to abide). Cutting off our support for them would unnecessarily undermine an essential but tenuous relationship.
The military stepped in at a crucial point when the despotism and abject mismanagement of the Muslim Brotherhood had driven millions of Egyptians into the streets demanding a new government, which could have turned out much more turbulently. Yet the Obama administration cannot plausibly claim that what happened wasn’t a seizure of power by the military (as representatives of the Egyptian government have contended), and will have to obey the letter of the law.
Thus, the State Department should take some time before announcing its formal conclusion on the matter, effectively giving the army a grace period. This deliberation cannot go on in perpetuity, but the popular demand and clear necessity for a new regime in Egypt justifies some discretion.
The conclusion will inevitably be that this was a coup, but it is a coup our interests demand we make an exception to support. The Obama administration should request and Congress should pass a waiver of the law for Egypt, authorizing the president to continue aid despite the coup — contingent on the military’s adhering to a roadmap for constitutional reform and eventual democratic elections. (Congress would probably not be willing to pass an unqualified waiver anyway.) Because of the complexity of Egypt’s situation, it is more important to lay an enduring constitutional groundwork for minority rights (especially freedom of speech and conscience) and equal protection of law. Elections are important, but the U.S. should support the military in prioritizing these issues rather than pushing them toward an arbitrary deadline for elections. Maintaining the flow of aid allows us to retain leverage in this process.
While such a waiver would actually place more restrictions on the military than today’s status quo, it would inevitably be seen as a sign of a U.S. commitment to the military’s policies and legitimacy. Given the rapidly unfolding pace of events and the potential for violence on both sides, the U.S. should wait a while to make such an exception, since it is possible the military will begin resorting to unacceptable violent repression and become unworthy of support. (It is also possible that the Islamists will start committing acts of terrorism and effectively spark a civil war, in which case our formal support for the military would become even more clearly justified.) But in the coming weeks, we will have a better sense of whether the military’s behavior is acceptable, and halting aid only until civilian rule is restored, as some suggest, would mean putting the same trust in a new regime (and the same military).
When the Obama administration waived various aid conditions imposed by Congress regarding Egypt’s prosecution of foreign NGO workers and stayed silent as President Morsi asserted his power above the judiciary in a civilian coup, it failed to hold the Egyptian government accountable. Since we were so munificent toward the Brotherhood, cutting off aid now would reinforce perceptions, harmful among authentic democrats in Egypt, that the U.S. is aligned with the Islamist organization. The remedy for such mistakes is not to adhere to an arbitrary congressional policy but to hold the military accountable to U.S. interests and commit it to the development of legitimate constitutional rule in Egypt.
Adjusting the law to continue support for the military, some might contend, would suggest to Egyptians that we are not serious about following through on our own policies and would not, say, cut off aid if the military’s government becomes too violent. On the contrary: Examining the behavior of the military government in the coming weeks and conditioning our aid on its movement toward democracy would clarify that our policies are based on a commitment to pluralistic, constitutional government and the security of the region. That sends a more powerful message than maintaining a simplistic policy at the expense of our interests.