It is important to begin by dispelling the flawed characterisation of the US’s annual transaction with Egypt as aid. It falsely implies both that the relationship is non-reciprocal and that the transaction is a kind of voluntary donation on the part of the US. This in itself is not news as such. It is a badly kept secret that at its heart the relationship is reciprocal, predicated upon Egypt upholding the Camp David accords and its status as a stable regional ally. This façade of providing aid to Egypt is better characterised as the laundering of America’s vested interests and is much more than a simple question of semantics because it allows us to recognise two important characteristics of the relationship in its current state.
Firstly, that the US stands to lose as much, if not more, than the Egyptian regime from this alliance collapsing. In this context, the crackdown on American NGOs can be viewed in part as a show of strength, a deliberate ploy to remind the US that it has an equal, if not larger interest in maintaining the relationship. For all the US’s rhetoric condemning the regime’s brutal repression of protesters, they were forced to the negotiating table in a desperate attempt to secure the release of their citizens. It is telling that as the plane carrying the freed American citizens departed, the regime’s fervent crusade against foreign funded NGO’s suddenly dissipated and they turned their focus back to the crusade against their own citizens. This was a shrewd move by the regime who not only asserted their authority in the relationship, but also embarrassed the Obama administration by publicly reaffirming the fact that America’s democratic agenda only extends the length of its own interests. The Egyptian NGO workers still on trial, abandoned by both governments, bear bitter testimony to this.
The recent report by the New York Times of U.S plans to “resume Egypt aid” is symptomatic of the inherent flaw in characterising the relationship in such terms. We are led to believe that the US, which initially withheld their annual payment only when concerns for their own citizens arose, will now go ahead with the payment “in spite of human rights concerns” for Egyptians, as if the idea ever truly flickered into their consideration. The laughable premise of this rose tinted narrative is that the US is the only determinant in whether it continues to give SCAF its pocket money or not. This was accompanied, without a hint of irony, by reports that the Obama administration will go so far as to override a recently established congressional requirement, which links military assistance to human rights concerns, in order to resume the payments, having already hurriedly sent the House Democratic leader to Cairo for ‘general talks’.
According to this ‘aid’ narrative, the alarming news from a US perspective, that during the same week Egypt’s parliament unanimously voted in favour of expelling the Israeli ambassador, halting gas supplies to Israel and rejecting US financial support is a mere coincidence.
The second important factor in the relationship’s current state is the incredibly difficult choice the US now faces in either continuing or halting its payments to Egypt’s military council. The secure status of the relationship was long ensured by successive Egyptian dictatorships, however the ousting of Mubarak has transformed this constant into a unpredictable variable, which has plunged the US into an unwinnable game.
If we stipulate, as is common knowledge, that the goal of America’s military support is regional stability specifically with reference to Egypt’s ties with Israel, then if the US goes ahead with its plan to resume financial support to Egypt’s military, the pressure on SCAF and its ties with both Israel and the US will grow even further, causing further domestic instability and ultimately returning the US back to its original dilemma. Alternatively if the US decides to pull its financial support then it will be a symbolic blow for SCAF and a victory for an Islamist dominated parliament whose stance on Israel is clear.
The pressing question for the US is: does it continue its financial support of an oppressive regime which historically has complied Israel’s and its own interests? Or does it risk hurting these interests by pulling support for SCAF and backing Egypt’s fledgling democracy in whatever form it takes?
It is a dilemma which US foreign policy has long had to contend with and confirms for any naive optimists that America’s interests based stance on the Middle East remains unchanged amongst the Arab Spring.