Is U.S. Military Aid to Egypt Going to Stop? Here's Why it Doesn't Matter

The violent crackdown on Islamist protesters in Egypt last week prompted renewed calls for the U.S. to cut off the $1.3 billion it grants Cairo in military aid each year. While there is a moral case to be made for such cuts, it is unlikely that they would have their intended effect of coercing the Egyptian military to halt the crackdown or negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood to end the ongoing standoff. In any case, the U.S. government is unlikely to cut off more than a fraction of the aid package, as it is not necessarily in its interests to do so.

To begin with, we should dispense with the notion that the U.S. government is wringing its hands over the fall of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Since when has the U.S. ever opposed the toppling of a radical government, elected or otherwise, by a military junta? Ask anyone from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, or South Korea whether the U.S. has qualms about palling around with military dictators or even sponsoring the coups that installed them (heck, ask an Egyptian who suffered through 30 years of Hosni Mubarak). More recently, the government has been somewhat selective in how thoroughly it adheres to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which requires the suspension of aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” The historical record shows that the U.S. tends to prefer military dictatorship to instability or even slightly radical governments.

There is another, more prosaic reason why military aid to Egypt is unlikely to disappear entirely: Influential lobbies don’t want it to. Israel, which usually gets its way with the U.S. Congress, has requested that we not cut off the aid. Still more importantly, American aid money almost always comes with strings attached, mandating that the recipient country spend it on goods or services from American contractors. Egypt is no exception and that $1.3 billion a year gets recycled right back to U.S.-based companies. In other words, the aid package represents a substantial stimulus to the U.S. arms manufacturing and defense contracting industries. How influential are these industries in Washington? Well, Lockheed Martin, which produces the F-16, and Boeing, which makes the Apache, each spent over $15 million on lobbying last year, and the defense aerospace industry as a whole spent a total of $58 million, so the answer is “very.” 

Furthermore, even if the U.S. did cut off the military aid, it wouldn’t necessarily make a difference. Egypt’s other bankrollers, Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Gulf monarchies, could fill much of the resulting gap in funds. Closing the aid spigot would not immediately hinder the generals’ capabilities to inflict violence on their own citizens. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy has said that an aid cutoff would not deter the crackdown, which the regime sees as a matter of national security. U.S. aid, both military and economic, is unpopular in Egypt anyway. As for the future, well, from the standpoint of stability, cutting the aid might actually turn out to be harmful: Snazzy American equipment keeps the troops happy and loyal, and the last thing Egypt needs right now is rogue soldiers. For all its faults, the military can hold the country together. Henry Kissinger would approve. 

None of this is to suggest that the U.S. does not have good cause to reduce or cut off military aid to Egypt. Even if one overlooks the ethical problems of the coup itself (and considering the failures and illiberal tendencies of the Muslim Brotherhood, many Egyptian liberals do), there is no moral justification for the way the military regime has cracked down on demonstrators. Even if there were violent elements among them, that does not justify treating the entire movement as violent, much less shooting teenagers through the head. Nor did the popular appeal of the crackdown or the instances in which soldiers or police protected the protesters from mob violence somehow balance out the mass killing. The moral case for ending the aid is very clear: The U.S. does not benefit from implicating itself in this mess or from propping up the military “deep state” in Egypt any longer than it already has.

The main argument for ending U.S. military aid to Cairo, however, long predates the current crisis. Military aid is a terrible foundation for a relationship between two countries. Whereas bilateral trade, tourist traffic, and academic and cultural exchanges foster partnership, aid dependency fosters only patronage. When that aid comes in the form of perfectly useless tanks and warplanes, it does nothing for the vast majority of Egyptians except to engender deep resentment and suspicion of the United States. Yes, while these billions have made us some friends in Egypt’s military establishment and corrupt ruling class, they have had only the opposite effect on the Egyptian public writ large. These sentiments will not disappear tomorrow if the government decides to suspend the aid today. The time for the U.S. to recalibrate its relationship with Egypt (and Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and so on) from a post-Cold War viewpoint and to stop contributing to the insane Middle East arms race was years ago. Now, it may be too late.