In announcing sweeping changes to Egypt’s military aid package on Tuesday, the Obama administration used both punishment and incentives to set a new tone for a frayed relationship with a crucial ally.
The United States took a long-overdue step that amounts to shredding Egypt’s credit card. Starting in fiscal year 2018, Egypt will no longer be eligible for cash flow financing, a mechanism that allowed the nation to place multimillion-dollar orders for American-made military equipment years in advance, under the assumption that Congress would continue to set aside $1.3 billion in military aid year after year. Taking away that privilege will make it easier for the American government in the future tosuspend, limit or condition aid, if it chooses to.
Also starting in 2018, American officials will be able to exert greater control over the type of weapons Egypt gets, which will allow the United States to focus aid on counterterrorism capabilities and toward investments in maritime and border security. The Egyptian government has historically favored acquiring tanks and warplanes in seeking to build a strong conventional military force.
Yet even as it announced those two important and sensible changes, the Obama administration decided to authorize the delivery of F-16 aircraft and other items that had been held back in protest for the Egyptian government’s appalling human rights record. President Obama told President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt during a phone call on Tuesday that the American government would keep asking Congress for $1.3 billion in military aid yearly for Egypt.
In their conversation, Mr. Obama expressed concern about Egypt’s detention of peaceful protesters and mass trials of political opponents, according to a statement issued by the White House. That criticism is unlikely to have much effect, considering how erratic the United States has been toward Egypt in the wake of the 2011 public revolt and the country’s subsequent reversion to authoritarianism.
There are strong reasons for the Obama administration to maintain a close alliance that provides American warships expedited passage through the Suez Canal and Air Force planes the right to fly freely over Egyptian airspace. The United States also regards Egypt as an important partner in the fight against the Islamic State, a terrorist organization that has a growing number of offshoots in the region.
But American officials could use the aid as leverage to press Egypt on human rights and democratic governance. Egypt has long viewed the assistance as an entitlement for having signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, regardless of its conduct. While some in Congress have sought in recent years to make continued aid conditional on a changes in the government’s conduct, they were overruled by lawmakers who saw fit to give the Obama administration complete flexibility.
Reassuring Egypt that the aid, though somewhat modified in its content, will continue is likely to be interpreted as a reluctant endorsement of the country’s despotic practices. Ordinary Egyptians end up paying the price. During a recent demonstration, security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters in Cairo using birdshot. After a young woman died of her wounds, one security official explained chillingly that she had died as a result of being too thin. The authorities said they were charging other marchers with crimes that could lead to several years in prison.