The reported plan to suspend part of U.S. military aid to Egypt reflects exactly what President Barack Obama announced in his speech at the UN General Assembly two weeks ago—continued aid to support counterterrorism and border security efforts, but withholding “prestige” items, like tanks and F-16s. The president also mentioned resumption of economic aid to support education, but we have seen no further news on that front as yet.
The Egyptian military is unlikely to overreact to this move—the Egyptian state paper has been spinning the president’s words as representing U.S. acquiescence in Egypt’s political trajectory and a resumption of aid—which is not inaccurate. So the announcement, when it finally comes, will present a half measure that will gain the U.S. little except closure on an awkward, months-long saga over Egypt aid—but given how telegraphed this move has been, I don’t expect it will have much negative impact in Egypt either.
Having failed to suspend aid right after the coup, despite threatening to do exactly that, the administration was left with little choice but to define its least worst option. With this partial suspension, it hopes to make clear that there is some price (largely symbolic and perhaps temporary) for ignoring U.S. preferences. The administration hopes to show it they won’t be overly influenced on Egypt policy by Gulf and Israeli lobbying for total aid resumption. And it hopes to sustain a working relationship with the people who are running Egypt—an objective which has been perhaps the only consistent component of the U.S. approach toward Egypt since the 2011 revolution.
None of this, of course, adds up to a policy that will achieve America’s stated strategic objectives of stability, much less democracy—this is yet another short-term, interim measure designed to preserve narrow U.S. interests rather than advance broad ones. Given that instability—and violence—in Egypt are likely to increase in the coming months without some political accommodation with Islamists and restraints on the security forces, this is no solution. But unlike other short-term responses by the administration to developments in Egypt, like its overinvestment in President Mohamed Morsi during 2012-2013, this move does not foreclose larger policy shifts down the road. Egypt looks set to continue on the path to a managed electoral system with severe constraints on rights, accompanied by ongoing repression and continued violence against the state by Islamist extremists. In this case, a U.S. approach that keeps channels open but puts down some markers about the limits of U.S. acquiescence could be a decent start to a long-term effort at nudging the political system toward greater openness and refusing to buy into a wholesale Egyptian “war on terror,” while protecting near-term U.S. security interests. But such a long-term effort would have to have other components as well, including a resumption of engagement and support for Egypt’s beleaguered human rights groups and clear communication with the Egyptian government and its allies about what terrorist threats the U.S. sees as priorities for mutual endeavor, and what threats are problems more of Egypt’s own making, that the U.S. will not treat as equivalent priorities for its own efforts and support.
The question is whether the administration has developed any long-term approach along these lines. I have my doubts. If we see a resumption of most or all assistance after Egypt holds elections next year, that will signal that, despite President Obama’s rhetoric, the administration is indeed returning to business as usual with Egypt.