by Alex Kane
As the Egyptian military brutally cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood over the last week, the question coursing through the U.S. media was what America’s response would be. Would the U.S. cut off aid to Egypt? Would the U.S. only curb economic aid? Or would the U.S. just take symbolic steps?
We’ve gotten some answers, but the overall response towards the Egyptian military’s coup and violence remains unclear. The U.S. has reportedly curbed some economic aid, though that’s only a fraction of the overall cash the U.S. gives to Egypt. The Obama administration announced a largely symbolic step in the wake of the killing of hundreds of people: the cancellation of joint military exercises.
As for the more important question of what the U.S. would do about its $1.3 billion in annual military aid given to the Egyptian armed forces, the picture is muddled. Yesterday, The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin reported that the Obama administration had secretly suspended a portion of U.S. military aid in response to the Egyptian military takeover, according to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Rogin reported that the U.S. was suspending the aid right now in accordance with U.S. law requiring that no aid be given to a government that came to power by way of a coup. So the U.S. is acting as if the Egyptian military’s take over was a coup–which it was–while not publically saying so.
But the White House today denied the report. “We are reviewing all of our assistance to Egypt. No policy decisions have been made at this point regarding the remaining assistance,” a National Security Council spokeswoman told Yahoo! News.
And even if Rogin’s report was true, the key word is “temporary.” The U.S. may have decided to suspend the aid for now–but it’s likely that assistance would continue once the Egyptian military provides some democratic window dressing. Additionally, the reported suspension of aid only applies to the $525 million that has yet to be disbursed this year–a small fraction of the overall $1.3 billion the U.S. gives to the Egyptian military annually.
So it’s business as usual. The U.S. continues to fund the Egyptian military while its killing opponents of the coup and Islamists. Why is that?
Here are 4 reasons why America funds the Egyptian military.
The flow of U.S. aid to Egypt began in 1979, when the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was signed. The treaty, which ended years of acrimony between the two countries and barred any chance of a new war breaking out between them, has been kept stable because of U.S. aid to Egypt. As Harvard professor Stephen Walt has written, “the current level of U.S. aid to Egypt and Israel is a bribe dating back to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty…Egypt got the money as a reward for making peace and realigning with the West.”
The benefits to both countries were great. Egypt got to build up its military and focus internally. Israel had the most powerful military in the region taken off the table as a threat as it continued to colonize the West Bank and Gaza. And more recently, Israel and Egypt have worked hand in hand to contain the threat posed to Israel from Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza.
Currently there is little danger that, even with an aid cut-off, Egypt would go to war with Israel. While the Egyptian street is fiercely sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, the people running Egypt are not so stupid as to think a war with Israel would go swimmingly. Israel, though, does not want an aid cut-off because of threats posed to them from Islamist militants in the Sinai–and because a U.S. aid cut-off would send a message that America could use their purse strings to encourage better governance. Israel would not like that message,given their generous aid package as it abuses Palestinian human rights.
2. Suez Canal
The Suez Canal is one of Egypt’s most prized possessions, and it offers immense benefits to the U.S. The canal connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and it is a key passage for oil. It is a link for oil that passes through the canal on its way to Europe and the United States. In total, 4.5 percent of global oil supplies pass through the Suez Canal.
The Suez Canal is also used by the U.S. Navy on an expedited basis.
3. U.S. Power in the Middle East
Relatedly, the Suez Canal is also a key place where the U.S. projects force in the Middle East.
Egypt is a crucial military ally when it comes to the U.S. pursuing its war on terror/Islam. Egypt allows U.S. warplanes to fly over their territory when prosecuting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Egyptian government under Hosni Mubarak also interrogated and tortured prisoners when the CIA handed off suspected terrorists to the government during its “extraordinary rendition” program.
And Egypt allows the U.S. military to train its forces on its territory.
4. Profits for U.S. Weapons Companies
The military aid the U.S. delivers to Egypt doesn’t only benefit the Egyptian armed forces. It’s also a crucial money-maker for U.S. weapons companies.
U.S. military aid to Egypt is what is known as Foreign Military Financing (FMF), where the U.S. gives Egypt money on the condition that the armed forces buy American weapons. So the U.S. money to Egypt effectively gets pumped back into the U.S. economy, providing jobs for Americans and profits for weapons companies.
Egypt has used FMF to buy American tanks, tear gas, guns and more. As Shana Marshall, a research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, wrote last year in Foreign Policy, the “the aid benefits a small and influential coterie of elites in both capitals. In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army’s commercial economic ventures.”
Alex Kane is AlterNet’s New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.