Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Blog

The last two weeks have brought a flurry of news from Egypt, beginning with a court decision that invalidated a third of the seats in Parliament and allowed the ruling military council, the SCAF, to dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament and seize legislative power. Against the uncertainty of that ruling, the second round of the presidential election took place, a runoff vote between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy and the military-approved candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. Vote tallies announced on Egyptian state TV and by the Muslim Brothers indicated that Morsy had won a narrow victory, but the Shafiq camp claimed victory as well.

Yesterday, the SCAF announced that the Presidential Election Commission would not announce the results of the runoff on Thursday, as it had promised throughout the process, but would delay the announcement for an unspecified period. Many in Egypt and abroad have speculated that this is the first step in a process of awarding the presidency to Shafiq instead of Morsy, possibly through a court decision. It is of some comfort that the presidency is now such a weak office that it likely wouldn't make much difference, but it would have an important symbolic impact and would indicate how confident the military is in the strength of their position. On top of this drama came reports on Tuesday that former president Hosni Mubarak’s health had deteriorated rapidly. Some media accounts reported him “clinically dead” and claimed he was in a coma and on life support. In a country where politics rewards cynicism, many immediately saw the reports as clearing the way for Mubarak to be taken to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, precluding any chance for him to face justice for his crimes.

All of these developments point to a military that is consolidating its control of Egyptian politics. The unilateral constitutional annex it offered last week makes the president a relatively powerless position and allows the military to retain control over its economic empire and avoid oversight of its budget. Though the military has been the preeminent force in Egyptian politics since the Free Officers’ Coup of 1952, it had almost always hid behind a civilian leader intended to be the public face of a military regime. The events of these last two weeks represent a departure from that pretext. Judging by its actions, the military feels confident enough to hold power publicly. The question for American policy-makers is whether the US is prepared to continue to back the Egyptian military under these new circumstances.

Immediately after SCAF’s decision to dissolve the Parliament, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the Appropriations Committee, issued a statement saying the dissolution of the Parliament would endanger the future of the $1.3 billion in aid the US sends Egypt each year. If one’s interest is in seeing Egypt emerge as a democratic and representative country, the decision to use military aid as a lever to disincentivize the military’s attempted seizure of power seems rather obvious. But in Washington, discussions about Egypt are often viewed through the lens of what developments in Egypt mean to Israel. This has put many pro-Israel politicians and writers in an awkward position: continued military control over Egypt is the best short-term option for preserving the Israeli-Egyptian alliance, but endorsing it requires abandoning any commitment to democracy in Egypt. Furthermore, the only way to ensure a long-term peace between Israel and Egypt is to allow the Egyptian people to bless it with democratic legitimacy, a process that remains impossible as long as the military imposes the peace on an unwilling public.

Hearings held yesterday by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs provided an example of this dynamic. Of three expert witnesses (Michelle Dunn of the Atlantic Council, Michael Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies), only Dr. Dunne advocated cutting off aid to the Egyptian military. Some members of the committee, like Gus Bilirakis of Florida, seemed more interested in preserving Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt than with the future of democracy in Egypt.

It is vital that the US have a policy towards Egypt, not simply a policy that seeks to protect Israel without regard to the costs to the Egyptian people and America’s reputation in Egypt. The State Department should announce immediately that military aid to Egypt will be suspended until the military has completed a real transfer of power, including oversight over its budget and leadership, to a legitimately-elected civilian government. Some may argue that the aid package is insignificant to the military’s leadership, and thus would not force them to change their ways. Even if that is the case, at least American taxpayer money will not be subsidizing the Egyptian military’s illiberal experiment. More likely, given the budgetary pressure Cairo currently faces, the SCAF would moderate its behavior in the face of a credible threat. For those concerned primarily with the maintenance of the Camp David Accords, an aid cut off would present a long term opportunity to construct an Egyptian-Israeli peace on more solid foundations. For Israel, Egypt and the US, an immediate suspension of military aid is the option most likely to incentivize stable and equitable relationships.      

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