Much about the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been an embarrassment. Some of its failures, such as Iraq, must be shared with its predecessor. In Egypt President Barack Obama and especially Secretary of State John Kerry incompetently followed in the footsteps of several administrations.
Three years ago Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship ingloriously collapsed. Although student-led protests in Cairo triggered the regime’s demise, it was Mubarak's plan to move from military rule to family rule that led the generals to abandon him. The Obama administration was constantly following events, first embracing Mubarak, then calling for a negotiated transition, and finally endorsing his overthrow. The Egyptian people ignored Washington at every turn.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral success upset the military’s plans to retain power, but the “deep state” persisted. Mohamed Morsi was elected president, but he had little control—not over the military, which was an empire unto itself, or the police, which refused even to defend the Brotherhood’s headquarters from mob attack, or the courts, whose judges were Mubarak holdovers, or the bureaucracy, staffed during three decades of Mubarak’s rule.
Nearly a year ago General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi squashed any possibility of the government slipping outside the military's control by staging a coup. He coordinated with anti-Morsi demonstrators to take over in the name of democracy, but quickly set about arresting anyone who dared to criticize the coup or its excesses. Since then thousands have been killed, hundreds sentenced to death, and tens of thousands detained. Human rights leaders who led demonstrations against Mubarak are among those receiving lengthy prison terms for organizing protests against Sisi.
Through it all the Obama administration took the least principled position possible. Although U.S. law required a cut-off of financial aid, the president simply refused to characterize the coup as a coup, as if not saying the word made it something else. Officials worried about lost leverage, even though Egyptian officials have always ignored Washington’s political advice. They had little reason to worry; the U.S. had never before stopped subsidizing Cairo’s authoritarian and corrupt rulers. When Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states stepped forward waving large wads of cash, Sisi and his fellow generals lost any reason to heed American advice.
Washington eventually held back the military portion of the $1.55 billion in planned U.S. assistance, apparently to demonstrate a little, but not too much, disapproval. Particularly grotesque regime abuses—mass death sentences imposed in trials offering little evidence against any of the accused, for instance—earned complaints from the Obama administration, but then Secretary Kerry would suggest that democracy still was moving forward. In April the administration said it would allow distribution of half of the $1.3 billion in military aid, and would deliver ten Apache helicopters to Egypt’s military. When I visited Egypt a couple months ago I found that virtually everyone believed America was on the wrong side, a notable if not particularly worthy achievement by the administration.
Now Congress has an opportunity to set things right. Last year Cairo was slated to collect $1.3 billion in military and $250 million in economic assistance. The first always was simply a bribe to Egypt’s real rulers. Since Gamal Abdel al-Nasser seized power in 1952 until Mubarak’s ouster, military leaders directly ran the state. Although conceived of as an incentive to convince Cairo to keep the peace with Israel, the Egyptian military, which has not fought a war in more than four decades, has the most to lose from any hostilities. Egypt would be defeated, and defeated badly, which would cost the generals their expensive toys and probably their power. These days U.S. assistance is as much as subsidy for American defense contractors as it is for Egyptian leaders.
The economic payments lack the political benefit of directly paying off the regime. Moreover, a half-century of development aid has yielded few examples where such transfers actually promote economic growth. More often, government-to-government payments underwrite dirigiste policies and discourage reform by masking the pain of failure. Egypt needs economic reform, not foreign subsidies.
House Republicans, apparently enthused with President Sisi’s promise to smite Islamists—along with everyone else who has the temerity to criticize him ever so slightly—proposed a nominal $50 million cut in economic assistance. (Congressmen Louie Gohmert and Michele Bachmann actually wanted to increase aid in the name of fighting terrorism, even though the regime has targeted all opponents.) That’s barely enough for the new dictator to notice, especially since the military would continue collecting its usual payments to purchase high-tech weapons which are more for show than use. Indeed, military service is good business, since the armed forces control up to 40 percent of the economy. Officers live very well, especially compared to the many Egyptians who cannot find work.
In contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed to reduce military aid to $1 billion and economic assistance to $150 million. That’s a $400 million reduction. U.S. aid still violates the law, which calls for a cut-off of subsidies after a coup. But at least the amount is noticeable.
However, even the Senate doesn’t go far enough. Congress should end all aid. The administration should shut up about democracy. The Pentagon should be left to cooperate with the Egyptian military on essential tasks, including access to the Suez Canal. The U.S. would still have plenty of leverage—after all, Egypt’s generals will want to continue purchasing newer and better toys, as well as acquiring spare parts for existing weapons.
There is no good answer to Egypt. No one knows how a Morsi presidency would have turned out, but skepticism of the Brotherhood in power is understandable, given the abuses of Islamists elsewhere. We do know how a Sisi presidency is likely to turn out: a rerun of Mubarak’s authoritarian and corrupt reign. That’s not attractive either. Repressive rule isn’t even likely to deliver stability, since the Egyptian people will eventually tire of yet another government which engages in jackbooted arrests, brutal torture, and arbitrary punishment, while failing to deliver economic growth.
The best Washington can do is stay out. Subsidize no one, endorse no one. Stop talking nonsense about democracy. Don’t publicly offer the government advice sure to be rejected. Work privately to advance important interests. Leave Egyptians to settle their fate. Things still might fall apart in Cairo. But for the first time in four decades, America really wouldn’t be at fault.