Withdrawing Aid to Egypt Could Spark Backlash

Experts warn against hasty withdrawal of Egyptian aid

Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi / AP
July 25, 2013

Immediately withdrawing U.S. aid to Egypt or placing stringent conditions on its delivery risks inciting a backlash among the Egyptian people and sparking more violence, Middle Eastern experts said Thursday.

The experts told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Egypt remains in a volatile state after Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 to revise the constitution and stage parliamentary elections in about six months.

Sisi has called for mass protests Friday to act as a "mandate" for the military to quell reports of terrorist attacks ahead of the elections, while Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters deny that they have resorted to violence and counter that more than 100 of their members have been killed in clashes this month.

Daniel Kurtzer, professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, testified that it is important to remember the groundswell of public support for the military’s actions in the wake of Morsi’s authoritarian rule.

The military has also closed tunnels used for smuggling jihadists and supplies between the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and provides support for moving U.S. personnel and equipment through the region, he said.

However, some lawmakers have cited the provision of U.S. law that requires the denial of aid to countries experiencing a "coup" in their push to eliminate monetary support to Egypt until it returns to democratic governance.

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a funding bill Thursday that disburses $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt in "tranches," with a quarter granted immediately and the rest parceled out as the interim government releases political prisoners, holds elections, and protects the rights of women and religious minorities.

Yet Kurtz, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said the conditional aid would generate "push back from the Egyptians."

"In the short term it may be that the military could go without assistance," he said.

"We would be cutting off our own nose despite our face in this case."

Dennis Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added that moving to cut off aid or condition it too quickly could crowd out U.S. influence. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged about $1 billion in aid for Egypt and favor a  "course correction" that would lead to more repressive actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.

"If we’re going to influence the military to turn to the Gulf states, any prospect of restraint goes out the window," he said.

Michele Dunne, vice president of the Atlantic Council, countered that Egyptian youth initially protested for early elections rather than a military takeover and that U.S. military assistance to Egypt has "ossified" without regard to the country’s deteriorating economic conditions.

"It would have been a better message and much more powerful for a country to remove a bad president through an election as opposed to what was a military coup," she said.

Dunne expressed skepticism about the ambitious time frame for the elections and recommended suspending aid and reviewing U.S. policy toward Egypt.

Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) echoed Dunne’s concerns about the United States’ stance toward military control and awarding aid.

"The law is the law," he said. "If we decide we’re above the law, it’s very hard for us to be preaching to the world about the rule of law."

However, Kurtzer responded that the issue is not "black and white" and that Morsi failed to provide a "rule of law methodology" and a legal outlet to remove the president after the courts suspended the Egyptian parliament.

Kurtzer added that the millions of protesters in the streets of Cairo provide a sign of hope for Egyptian civil society and an inclusive political process despite the current state of polarization.

"You have to start somewhere on the path to real democratic governance, but it may take time," he said.

"I think we’re at the early stages of a prolonged process, and it’s going to require not only [the Egyptians’] patience but also our patience."