The Obama administration’s decision to cancel a joint military exercise has been criticized as too little, too late by a bipartisan group of U.S. Middle East analysts, although some Egyptian democrats charge that Western critics are underplaying the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The president’s failure to suspend aid to the Egyptian military is a strategic error that undercuts those objectives and weakens U.S. credibility, after repeated calls by the U.S. administration for Egyptian authorities to avoid bloodshed have been disregarded,” said a statement by members of the Working Group on Egypt.
Members of the working group include former National Security Council official Elliott Abrams, the Rafik Hariri Center’s Michele Dunne (a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy), Brookings analysts Robert Kagan and Tamara Cofman Wittes, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff, and George Mason University’s Peter Mandaville, amongst others (full list below).
“These policies risk placing Egypt’s rulers in conflict with its people once again — an outcome that would be terrible for Egypt and for the United States. The U.S. should make clear its support for a genuine democratic transition that will require an end to military rule in Egypt, and use all the leverage it has to encourage this goal, including the placing of conditions on future aid to the Egyptian military,” the group wrote.
“I think it’s time for the United States to recognise that what we have here is the restoration of a military dictatorship in Cairo,” said the Saban Center’s Wittes, a former State Department official on Middle East democracy issues during the first Obama administration.
“That means that the United States needs to call these events what they are – under American law it needs to suspend assistance to the Egyptian government because this was a military coup and it is a military regime,” she told the BBC:
Ms Wittes also said the Egyptian army would maintain security co-operation with the US, even if aid was cut, because it was in its own interest. For now that’s a risk the Obama administration is not willing to take.
But her view is at odds with that of the head the State Department’s new office on Middle East Transitions, William Taylor, Foreign Policy’s Cable reports, who believes that Egypt’s military is not interested in governing directly.
“[The military] wanted to make it very clear to this American sitting on the other side of the table that they didn’t like the governing business,” Taylor said. “I do believe that they are uncomfortable governing. Some would say they’re not doing a great job of it.”
Such views are also opposed by Egyptian liberals and democrats who believe Western actors fail to appreciate that the Brotherhood was mounting a “creeping coup” against democratic rule.
The administration’s move drew a swift rebuke from a veteran Egyptian democracy advocate.
“Well done, now Egyptians will feel that their army, the only entity they trust at present, is being penalized for siding with them against the failed incompetent Brotherhood regime they revolted against. The likely result is that they will drift closer round it, increasing the influence of the military in political life,” “publisher and analyst Hisham Kassem wrote on Facebook.
TIGHTROPE OR RAZOR BLADE?
The Obama administration’s response to the violence was inadequate and sent mixed messages, said Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre and member of the Working Group.
“What Obama is trying to do is tread this cautious path between taking too strong of a path in either direction, which is understandable given the pressures he trying to balance,” said Hawthorne, a former State Department official.
“But at a certain point we have to look at this with more clarity. The current approach hasn’t been working and it’s time to try something else to send a stronger message,” she added.
A former U.S. official said Washington had alienated all parties by trying to strike a middle ground.
“We have alienated the military because of our stand on democracy, we have alienated the Muslim Brotherhood because of our stand on interests,” he added. “And trying to walk that thin line unfortunately has not been a tightrope for the president, but has ended up being a razor blade.”
‘Putin will arrive in Cairo in 2 or 3 months’
Shutting off the aid spigot now would not have an immediate impact on the Egyptian military, defense officials say, because this year’s military assistance has already been delivered,” the New York Times reports:
Beyond money, Arab officials worry that a rupture between Washington and the Egyptian military would further erode American influence in a country that has historically been a bellwether in the Arab world, and would open the door to rivals like Russia or China.
“If the aid gets cut, you can be sure that Putin will arrive in Cairo in two or three months,” one senior Arab official said. “And he will give aid with no strings attached.”
“They’ve limited their own options by believing the idea that in order to influence things, you need to remain engaged,” said Steven A. Cook, an expert on Egypt at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We’ve never tested the proposition of cutting them off.”
Other experts said Mr. Obama had few attractive alternatives and mainly wanted to keep out of the situation.
“Anything they do that is dramatic puts the United States in the middle of a story that we really don’t want to be in the middle of,” said Steven Simon, a former National Security Council official under Mr. Obama who is now head of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The administration should cut off “targeted” cooperation with Egypt’s military without halting all aid, said Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton White House official who is now the executive director of the National Security Network.
“No matter where you’re coming from ideologically,” she said, “the playing field we face in the Middle East is not the playing field we faced a month ago.”
Conditioning Aid to Egyptian Military: A Statement by the Working Group on Egypt November 17, 2011:
Nearly ten months since the start of the Egyptian revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has yet to take basic steps towards establishing a human rights-respecting, democratic, civilian government. On the contrary, in many areas Egypt is witnessing a continuation or return of Mubarak-era tactics of repression, as well as increasingly obvious efforts by SCAF to extend and even increase its own power in the government well beyond the scheduled parliamentary elections. The SCAF is also resisting calls to schedule a presidential election in an effort to hold on to executive power while a new constitution is written. These policies risk placing Egypt’s rulers in conflict with its people once again–an outcome that would be terrible for Egypt and for the United States. The U.S. should make clear its support for a genuine democratic transition that will require an end to military rule in Egypt, and use all the leverage it has to encourage this goal, including the placing of conditions on future aid to the Egyptian military.
Despite repeated promises to do so before elections, the SCAF has yet to lift Egypt’s state of emergency and has instead expanded its scope beyond what it was under Mubarak. It has kept a tight control on the reins of government, limiting the authority of civilian officials. It has violated the due process rights of more than 12,000 Egyptian citizens, including activists, bloggers and protesters, who have been subjected to unfair trials in military courts. It has given orders restricting media freedom.
While recognizing that the existing Law of Associations is deeply flawed and must be reformed, the government has simultaneously initiated criminal investigations into the foreign funding of many of the most prominent and effective civil society organizations in the country. Units of the military have been involved in torture, sexual abuse, and outright killings, as occurred on October 9 when 27 Coptic Christians and one military officer were killed in the Maspero area of Cairo after members of the military ran over protesters using several military vehicles. In each of these situations the military has either failed to investigate its own crimes, or refused to disclose any information about such investigations. The SCAF has failed to carry out police reform during 9 months in power, leading to a dangerous rise in crime and sectarian violence, excessive and illegal use of force by the riot police in policing demonstrations, and ongoing cases of torture and police abuse. And Egypt’s economy is continuing to deteriorate, due to a pervasive sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the political transition and weakness of the rule of law.
The SCAF is also seeking to protect its special privileges and increase its influence over any future civilian government. On November 1, the SCAF-appointed Deputy Prime Minister issued a document of “supraconstitutional principles” that would shield the military from civilian oversight. It would also give the military the power to overrule legislation and control selection of the members of a constituent assembly. While public opposition seems to have led SCAF to state it is willing to discuss these demands, the military’s anti-democratic intentions are clear.
Today, the outcome of the revolution remains mired in doubt, and it is far from clear that the SCAF is willing to truly give up the reins of power.
President Obama has rightly stated that “the United States supports a strong, peaceful, prosperous and democratic Egypt that responds to the aspirations of its people.” In a recent phone call to head of the SCAF, he urged Egypt to “lift the emergency law and end military trials for civilians.” But while this message is important and must be repeated by other senior US officials, it appears to have had little immediate effect on SCAF’s actions.
In large part, this may be because of the administration’s stated reluctance to touch the $1.3 billion in military aid that it gives to Egypt every year, and which makes up as much as a quarter of the Egyptian military’s yearly budget. The SCAF has a huge stake in ensuring that this money, and the access to U.S. military advice and technology that comes with it, continues to flow. In fact, precisely because of the lack of civilian oversight of the military – and its budget — in Egypt, it becomes all that more important that the United States, including the U.S. Congress, effectively use the leverage they have over the Egyptian military.
The Senate version of the 2012 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill includes a modest provision requiring the Secretary of State to certify that “the Government of Egypt has held free and fair elections and is implementing policies to protect the rights of journalists, due process, and freedoms of expression and association.”
These are very basic standards that get to the heart of what needs to happen in Egypt if the country is to emerge as a stable, democratic country. They are not difficult to satisfy, and give the Department of State flexibility in analyzing the situation in Egypt. But they also send a strong message to the Egyptian military about the consequences they could face should they decide to sabotage the transition and keep the country in its current undemocratic, repressive state. The Egyptian military needs to understand that the close cooperative relationship it currently enjoys with the U.S. military will inevitably suffer if it continues on a path of obstructing democratic progress in Egypt.
The United States Congress should adopt these conditions, and the Obama administration should welcome them.
The Working Group on Egypt is a nonpartisan initiative bringing substantial expertise on Egyptian politics and political reform, and aimed at shaping an effective U.S. policy response to Egypt’s transition.
|Robert Kagan (co-chair) Brookings Institution||Michele Dunne (co-chair) Atlantic Council|
|Elliott Abrams Council on Foreign Relations||Ellen Bork Foreign Policy Initiative|
|Daniel Calingaert Freedom House||Reuel Gerecht Foundation for Defense of Democracies|
|Amy Hawthorne Atlantic Council||Neil Hicks Human Rights First|
|Peter Mandaville Ali Vural Ak Center for Islamic Studies George Mason University||Stephen McInerney Project on Middle East Democracy|
|Tamara Wittes Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution|