Never mind the coup: U.S. military aid will continue to flow to Egypt

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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Egyptians celebrated in the street after the military deposed Mohamed Morsi from power. (Photo via CBS News)

After the Egyptian military deposed former President Mohamed Morsi from power, the conversation in the U.S. quickly turned to this question: would military aid be cut off to the Egyptian armed forces, as the law stipulates must be done after a coup? The short answer is no. Too much is at stake for U.S. elite interests–namely Israel, the Suez Canal and influence in the Middle East–for that to happen.

Yesterday, Egypt’s top military officer announced that Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, was no longer in power. The Constitution was suspended, a new interim president who will act as a figurehead installed, and new elections scheduled. The immediate aftermath saw the Egyptian military deploy on the streets, crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters and put top Islamists under arrest. It is a military coup by any definition of the word, though in this case it was a military coup backed by the will of the Egyptian people.

After the coup occurred, and as millions of Egyptians erupted in jubilation over Morsi’s downfall, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont released a statement saying that the U.S. was obligated to cut off military aid to Egypt. “Our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” said Leahy. “This is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that transfers of power should be by the ballot, not by force of arms.”

President Obama gave his answer on the question of an aid cut-off in his own statement released last night. While Obama said he was concerned about retribution against the Muslim Brotherhood–something that began to happen immediately after Morsi’s departure–he also didn’t mention the word “coup,” which would have forced the U.S.’s hand on an aid cut-off. “I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt,” said Obama, paying lip-service to U.S. law. But the cat is already out of the bag–Secretary of State John Kerry approved $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt in May.

That annual $1.3 billion has helped the Egyptian military become the most powerful institution in the country. It has bought the military the armored personnel carriers, the fighter jets and the guns that helped them to easily exert total control of Egypt yesterday. Indeed, as an Egyptian military officer put it today in the New York Times, “We are disciplined, and we have the weapons. That’s what’s on the market right now. Do you see any other solid institution on the scene?”

The Egyptian military would not have overthrown Morsi without a green-light from the U.S. The U.S. spigot to the military will continue to flow as long as the military keeps acting in a way conducive to U.S. interests.

One of the most important reasons why the U.S. gives Egypt military aid is the armed forces’ continued maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel. The 1979 Camp David Accords took the Egyptian military off the map as a threat to Israel. This freed up Israel’s hands to deal with the Palestinians and other regional enemies as they wish without the threat of any Egyptian retribution. The military has collaborated with Israel’s system of control over the Palestinians ever since the peace treaty was signed. This was seen clearly during Operation Cast Lead, when the Israeli and Egyptian militaries coordinated as Israel waged a punishing assault on Gaza’s civilians and Hamas–no friend to the Egyptian military. More recently, the Egyptian military has continued to crack down on smuggling tunnels into Gaza that deliver goods and arms to the besieged strip.

As the Times of Israel reported, “Israeli political and military sources privately indicated Thursday that they considered the turn of events potentially beneficial to Israel…The Times of Israel has been told that senior Israeli defense officials consider relations with el-Sissi’s military establishment to have been close and robust, with ongoing cooperation between the two military hierarchies.”

The Suez Canal, too, is another important reason for U.S. military aid to Egypt. The canal is crucial for U.S. naval force projection, as well as for the flow of oil and gas to the U.S. and Europe.

Yet another reason the aid will keep flowing, as Shana Marshall wrote in Foreign Policy last year, is that “the aid benefits a small and influential coterie of elites in both capitals. In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army’s commercial economic ventures.”

As the Egyptian military continues its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, you can expect to see a lot of U.S. hand wringing over it. But the hand wringing won’t translate into an aid cut-off. The American position was articulated by Senator Lindsey Graham: “[It] looks like a coup, it sounds like a coup…But I’m in the camp with Senator McCain – let’s look and see how this unfolds…we cannot be seen as supporting a military coup. It is imperative that the democratic process restart and that we have a game plan and a road map to new elections.”

In other words, U.S. officials recognizes the military’s actions as a coup. But the aid cut-off is something that will take time–too much time for it to actually be implemented.

While we’re waiting for the democratic process to “restart”–perhaps as the Muslim Brotherhood is decimated as a political force–the Egyptian military can slowly get back to its traditional role as a state within a state in the background. That way, the foreign policy the U.S. wants will continue to be pursued by the Egyptian military while a new civilian leader is installed who won’t go near pursuing an independent Egyptian regional policy.

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