Due in part to its geopolitical importance, Egypt has been the recipient of American military and economic aid since the beginning of the Mubarak regime in the 1980s. The various American administrations, be they Democrat or Republican, have recognized the fact that a stable Egypt is crucial to the protection of American interests in the Middle East. As with other instances of American intervention in the developing world, the desire to keep Egypt stable has been achieved at the cost of having democratically elected leaders. It should come as no surprise that Obama has decided to send billions of dollars in aid, and Congress’ ongoing reevaluation of the annual American aid package will most likely not result in drastic changes. When push comes to revolutionary shove, the American government will prioritize the protection of its interests over its democratic ideals.
The aid package does come with stipulations: these are tied to the protection of human rights and civil liberties, and are in place to ensure the honouring of the Camp David agreement. However, it is clear that the US is looking past several inconvenient truths regarding the new Egyptian order. Most obvious is the fact that, when it comes to protecting the interests of the people, the Egyptian army may not be the best institution for the job.
Historically, there has been tension in Egypt between the secularist ruling elite (ie, the military and judiciary), and the populist, Islamist majority which has been behind much of the revolutionary activity that occurred during the Arab Spring. As is common in the Middle East, this tension and its accompanying conflicts resulted in the transition from a repressive regime under Mubarak, to an illiberal ideological democracy led by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, Egypt is facing another transformation, and it is less clear which form it will take.
The military’s plans for a reformed Constitution and fair elections are encouraging, while its other actions are less so: the persecution of prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the shutting down of any “threatening” media, and of course the mass murder of 50 Morsi supporters during a demonstration on July 8. During the uprising, the interests of the army happened to align with those of the people.
The economic, social, and political state of Egypt had decreased dramatically under Morsi, and this gave rise to widespread political unrest that was easily exploited by those who had an interest in doing so. While the Morsi regime was undeniably undemocratic, the army attained popularity by citing the will of the people, and went on to stage a military coup that has already resulted in violence. As we have seen, the will of the people is volatile at best, and explosive at worst; it will not always cohere with the new government’s vision of the Egyptian state. What is today a manifestation of freedom of expression, might tomorrow be a crackdown on dissidents. From an outside perspective, Egypt has gone from the frying pan into the fire.
The prospect of military aid, then, has become more pressing. Following Obama’s failure to address the shortcomings of the Morsi government, the international community is looking for a sign that will define his position on the legitimacy of the new government. Egyptians themselves, who have demonized US ambassador Anne Patterson, and who consider the Americans to be the ally of an oppressive Islamist regime, will also be paying close attention in the coming days.
What Obama should have done, and what he still has the opportunity to do, is send a definitive signal that the US does not support any kind of military coup; no matter how repressive the previous government might have been. Two wrongs do not and will never make a right. The new military government can never be considered legitimate because of the violent way it was brought about; this is why laws exist which prevent American aid being sent to nations that have undergone a coup d’état. The billion-dollar aid package that has been sent off to Cairo is thus an indication of waning American willpower, and its lack of commitment to its democratic ideals.
To cut the funding would have been a perfect way to legitimize Obama’s “Leading from Behind” doctrine. It would have been an excellent illustration of the notion of nonviolent action in the name of democracy; but instead, Obama has decided to uphold the status quo. This, coupled with the American citizens who were not allowed to leave Egypt before the delivery of the aid money, exposes the weakness of the US government in the face of the Arab Summer. Not to mention, the American dollars which fund the Egyptian army will now be linked with its government, for better or for worse.
The appeasement of a volatile force has never led to anything other than a growth in conflict and a widespread pattern of regional instability. Rather than legitimizing “Leading from Behind” and turning it into a viable foreign policy tool, the Obama administration has ratified the watered down version of realpolitik that has become the new norm for the United States.
Featured photo:Rubin 110, Creative Commons, Flickr