On the heels of the violent dispersal of pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-ins, US military aid to Egypt is now the center of political discussions on the nature of the US-Egyptian relationship. Internationally, academics, politicians, and protesters have fervently debated the word “coup” as a term to classify the events following the 30 June uprising against former President Morsi. The arguments for and against the term “coup” have analyzed cultural, political, and historical markers in Egypt, and yet a striking degree of disagreement still exists over the proper classification. Some have termed Morsi’s ouster a “coup,” and have called for an end to the annual 1.3 billion US dollars in United States military aid to Egypt, particularly after the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi protesters. Abd al-Ghani Sayyid has argued that there are key similarities between the January 25 Revolution and the 30 June uprising, including the protesters’ demands for the military’s assistance and its subsequent intervention—adding that categorization of the events as a coup or revolution can only occur after observing the long-term effects of the two uprisings. Others place the blame on the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing that Morsi’s inability to govern the country inclusively was one of many factors that led Egypt to this critical juncture.
In official US circles, classification of the uprising as a coup would require the cancellation of the annual provision of US military aid to Egypt. Given the official death toll of over 1,000 since the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi protesters on 14 August 2013, the United States is being pressed to defend its unwavering aid to the Egyptian state. Cairo has traditionally been a strategic geopolitical ally, and the Egyptian military is the second greatest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel. Yet Egypt’s military authorities have now strayed far from US requests to avoid bloodshed in resolving the political stalemate.
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for the suspension of US military aid, describing the military and interim government as “taking Egypt down a dark path, one that the United States cannot and should not travel with them.” The senators echo a slew of US critics of continued military aid to Egypt. While President Barack Obama swiftly announced the cancellation of joint military exercises with Egypt next month, the annual pledge of 1.3 billion dollars remains untouched. Cutting it would reverse a decades-long policy that effectively armed authoritarian governments in an effort to promote “regional stability.”
Questioning US Military Aid Policy
The sudden critique of US military aid among US policy makers and political commentators marks a hypocritical shift in attitude toward the limits of unconditional military aid, following years of human rights abuses during the Hosni Mubarak administration that went unaddressed. History tells us that morality and human rights have traditionally played no part in the determination of the disbursement of US military aid.
Firstly, in the case of aid to Egypt, it has represented a political maneuver to secure Egyptian allegiance to US foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, as military aid has been linked to Egypt’s adherence to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and regional security. According to a US embassy cable from March 2009 released by Wikileaks, military aid to Egypt is considered “untouchable compensation” for the maintenance of a favorable relationship with Israel:
President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil (sic) relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF as “untouchable compensation” for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.
Indeed, US naval vessels receive expedited access to the Suez Canal, a service that is extremely politically and economically valuable. The United States also benefits from access to Egyptian airspace. In this context, military aid is not a benevolent act, but rather payment for services rendered at all levels from the Egyptian government.
Secondly, the aid represents a business deal that strongly benefits the US arms industry by requiring that aid money be used to pay for contacts with US companies for the procurement of weaponry. Both of these aims transcend the political situation on the streets in Egypt. In fact, unconditional military aid has survived decades of political oppression at the hands of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s administration.
Meanwhile, these factors have also transformed US-Egyptian relations into a patron-client dynamic. Traditionally, military aid has been one of the most effective ways for Washington to secure the allegiance of any incoming Egyptian administration. In his book Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance, Jason Brownlee notes that some US officials advocated liberalizing reforms, while remaining wary that “a sudden opening of public participation could bring unknown figures to power and jeopardize strategic cooperation.” Opinion polls under the Mubarak administration showed an overwhelming rejection of US strategic proprieties; attitudes which could affect Egyptian foreign policy if they receive the endorsement of a new democratically elected government. By fostering the military’s vested interest in maintaining an amicable relationship with the United States, Washington ensures that an incoming administration is faced with an established military, firmly rooted in a US-Egyptian relationship.
This has multiple implications for Egyptian foreign policy and geopolitical alliances. While administrations come and go, the Egyptian military maintains its stoic role in Egyptian politics. A testament to the stability of the role of the military is the long-standing military leadership of former Minister of Defense and Military Production Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led the military for over twenty years until his forced retirement in 2012. The very static characteristic of the Egyptian military leadership has facilitated the preservation of a military aid agreement with the United States that stretches back decades.
The Nature of US Military Aid
Despite the highly secretive military budget, which the law protects from scrutiny, there are a few cases in which the public can glimpse the vast economic power contained by the Egyptian military. One such case is the economic-military agreement between the United States and Egypt. Between 1948 and 2011, the United States has provided Egypt with 71.6 billion dollars in bilateral aid. Since 1987, Egypt received approximately 1.3 billion dollars annually in military aid from the United States. The Obama Administration requested another 1.3 billion dollars for the 2012 fiscal year.
Under the banner of military aid, Egypt benefits from a cash-flow agreement, which some analysts estimate at two billion dollars. Military aid is divided into three main types: acquisitions, equipment upgrades, and support or maintenance contracts. Of the annual military aid, approximately thirty-five percent goes toward the purchase of new weapons systems from the United States as part of a defense modernization plan, thirty percent is earmarked for the acquisition and maintenance of US equipment, twenty percent goes toward the costs of program implementation, and fifteen percent is allocated for upgrading equipment that is in use, according to military analysts. Only a small fraction of military aid is given directly to the Egyptian military to run domestic military-related projects.
Egypt uses this cash-flow agreement to purchase military equipment exclusively from US defense contractors, buying items ranging from tear gas to F-16 fighter jets. In fact, this money never leaves the United States. As much as Egypt would suffer from a loss in fully subsidized military equipment, the disruption to the US-Egyptian aid agreement would also undoubtedly have serious financial implications for defense contractors that typically field orders to Egypt. Lockhead Martin, an US defense contractor, received 259 million dollars from defense contracts that included the provision of F-16s to Egypt between 2009 and 2011. While this number represents only a fraction of Lockhead’s contracts, small-to-medium sized contractors would suffer more from the reduction or cancellation of aid to Egypt.
Weak Strings Attached to Aid
According to the Congressional Research Service 2013 Report for Congress, US funds are only to be used under certain conditions. Firstly, the US Secretary of State must certify that Egypt is meeting its obligations under the peace treaty with Israel. Secondly, its authorities must be supporting the transition to civilian government by holding free and fair elections and by “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.” However, these requirements can be waived “under certain conditions,” though these go unspecified in the report.
The only notable condition is thus maintenance of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and of security in the Sinai Peninsula, which have been pillars of the US-Egyptian relationship. Cutting military aid could have immediate repercussions for Egyptian up-keep of amicable relations with Israel; a prospect that the United States has never considered testing before. Considering the Mubarak administration’s poor track record with free and fair elections, it can be safely assumed that the other conditions, relating to the Camp David Accords and security in Sinai, have been adequately met for several years, thus allowing the flow of military aid despite a lack of progress in the field of democracy. In a joint press conference between Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then President Hosni Mubarak in 2009, Gates remarked, “multiple American presidents and administrations have benefited from [Mubarak’s] wise counsel.” He also noted that while the US administration supports human rights, its position toward military funding is that the “foreign military financing that’s in the budget should be without conditions.”
Although progress towards democracy is considered a condition of military aid, the reality is that US arms have been used to suppress basic democratic freedoms in Egypt. In the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the extent of military aid from the United States became apparent when it was discovered that the tear gas being used on protestors was manufactured from Combined Systems International of Jamestown, Pennsylvania. In fact, US military aid survived a public relations disaster during the eighteen days of the January 25 Revolution, as Egyptian protesters held tear gas canisters stamped with “made in America” for international journalists to see. There still seems to be no accountability for the use of US arms on peaceful protests.
Domestic Corruption Pervades the Aid Relationship
The economic-military relationship between the United States and Egypt has sustained a great deal of corruption, not only in the use of weapons imported from the United States to deter or disperse protests before, during, and after the 2011 revolution, but also through the Egyptian military’s abuse of funding.
In 1986, the Egyptian military signed a contract with General Motors to manufacture passenger cars. USAID gave 200 million dollars from its budget to subsidize the project. While the project was later abandoned for both political and economic reasons, the army instead began assembling Jeep Cherokees through an agreement with the Chrysler Corporation. By entering into such agreements, the United States was legitimating domestic economic activity that strengthened the bureaucracy inherent in the military institution. The army would receive subsidies from the United States through US companies to create car factories, but profits from these projects would go directly to military accounts rather than toward the state.
In the 1990s, the Pentagon announced that it would provide tens of millions of dollars to help establish a 650-bed international medical center outside of Cairo, specifically for treatment of Egyptian soldiers. While the Pentagon maintained that the Egyptian military had paid for its creation, the US military aid program contributed 162.8 million dollars for equipment, operations and maintenance. Once this hospital was built, it became clear that it was being used for commercial purposes. The hospital was treating civilian patients, and offered a “lavishly furnished Royal Suite” for international patients. Even so, the Pentagon continued its forty-six million dollar contract to the Florida-based company TeKontrol to train hospital staff members for twelve months. When notified of these abuses, the Pentagon commented that termination of the contract “could potentially impact the desires of the Egyptian Ministry of Defense,” to win international accreditation for the hospital. Accordingly, it upheld the contract.
Reassessing US Military Aid
The recent bloodshed in Egypt cast new light on military aid in official US circles, which have opportunistically forgotten the many years of military aid during which illegal detentions, torture, and a state of emergency were common features on the Egyptian political scene. From 1987 to 2013, US military aid to Egypt proceeded virtually unchallenged and unquestioned. Not only was US military equipment used to suppress democratic rights in Egypt, it also contributed to a vast military industrial complex, whereby the Egyptian military owns pasta and car factories, retains a budget completely independent of the state, all the while benefiting from an US patron that fully subsidizes modern military equipment. The Mubarak regime was long portrayed as a stable and functioning state and police brutality was simply a price to pay for maintenance of that stability.
Amicable relations between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood indicated that President Morsi had also bowed to the traditional US-Egyptian relationship. In November 2012, Morsi was seen as a major player in brokering a peace deal between Hamas and Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applauded the new Egyptian administration for “assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional peace and stability.” The United States could breathe a sigh of relief that the incoming administration had accepted the basic tenets of the traditional US-Egyptian relationship. However, in the aftermath of the 30 June uprising, the loss of another pliant administration again places the United States in an awkward position in anticipation of new elections that may bring in a new administration less friendly towards US geopolitical goals.
Now, the image of a new military-run regime has proliferated in US media as an anti-democratic force, entirely responsible for the recent bloodshed in Egypt. Western coverage of the events in Egypt has provided little reference to the key catalysts of the Tamarod movement. The concept that democracy comes through the ballot box is a narrative that cannot encompass the range of repertoires of public expression in Egypt, where streets and squares are regularly used to convey discontent and grievances. Coverage of bloody clashes between security forces and protesters has failed to give viewers a contextual understanding of Egyptian politics and domestic divisions—not to mention the US role in supporting the coercive apparatus that is leading these atrocities. It is the new image of Egypt, one that has been violent and oppressive, that has caused domestic uproar over the annual provision of military aid.
The Weakening of US Leverage
The Egyptian military, riding on wave of popularity following the 30 June uprising, has failed to heed recommendations from the United States. Despite frequent calls from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and warnings from US Secretary of State John Kerry to “respect the rights of free assembly,” Egyptian authorities proceeded with a violent dispersal of pro-Morsi demonstrators. These incidents have been very public demonstrations of the Egyptian military’s ability to disregard US policy recommendations while retaining US military aid.
Yet while military aid continues to flow, it has drastically lost its value as the United States has failed to adjust it in line with inflation. Egyptian military officials have complained that Foreign Military Financing (FMF) has not risen to match the rising cost of weaponry in recent decades, resulting in a decrease in net assistance. Military aid has remained at a stagnant 1.3 billion dollars for several decades, defying inflation and the costs of modern military equipment. Indeed, as Zeinab Abul-Magd explains, it has thus depreciated from more than seventy percent of the Egyptian military’s budget to approximately thirty percent. With regard to weapons purchases, US military aid is estimated to cover eighty percent of the Defense Ministry’s weapons procurement costs. In the current transition of power, Egyptian leaders have willfully tested the limits of US aid by signaling at certain points that it is neither indispensable nor necessary. They have done so most recently by repeatedly defying official US public statements advising the Egyptian military on its political course after 30 June. Further compounding this crisis in US leverage on Egypt is the flow of financial support from Gulf States, which recently pledged billions of dollars in the form of no-interest loans, oil subsidies, and grants to Egypt.
For the United States, the question of cutting military aid to Egypt is not a question of democracy or human rights. It is a matter of repercussions for domestic defense contracts, as well as the destabilization of an important cornerstone of US-Egyptian relations, the Israeli peace treaty. The suspension of military aid would be futile, given that such a suspension would cut any remaining allegiance of the Egyptian government to the United States. Furthermore, if the United States cuts Egypt’s aid, it risks being replaced by a different player in regional politics, including Saudi Arabia, which has pledged billions of dollars in financial support to the Egyptian state.
With the aforementioned realities in mind, the debate on military aid in the United States has been quite ironic. The United States had been an ally of the Mubarak administration as well as the Morsi administration, each of which bore the same features that the United States now decries: namely, an aggressive security apparatus and sanctions on the freedom of speech. Fear of the retardation or termination of the democratic process in Egypt has been cited as a principal reason for resisting the change in the Egyptian administration following the 30 June uprising. Yet this newfound interest in democracy in Egypt is an argument that flies in the face of years of unchallenged aid to Hosni Mubarak’s twenty-nine year term as president of Egypt.
The violence against protesters in Egypt was so widely publicized as to necessitate the questioning of United States military aid by US policymakers in front of skeptical constituents. US politicians’ criticism of the Egyptian military, and their threats to withdraw aid, were simply knee-jerk reactions to images of the violent crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters. And just as quickly as these threats appeared, they soon dissipated. This is because, in the long term, changes to the military aid agreement would be detrimental to US privileges in Egypt and strategic interests in the Middle East.
To date, the debate on United States military aid is little more than political white noise that has had minimal bearing on the US-Egyptian aid relationship. While the debate has cast the US-Egyptian relationship as one that is founded on the promulgation of democracy and human rights in Egypt, the reality is that a policy of unfettered aid has fostered a relationship with the Egyptian military that fails to impose conditions or repercussions for any violations, be they misuse of funds or anti-democratic practices.