Eagle Adrift in the Middle East: When Democracy and National Security Are Two Sides of the Same Coin -- and Democracy Loses

04/09/2015 12:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

Last week U.S. President Barack Obama informed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi that the military aid that was previously put on hold in the wake of the 2013 military takeover that removed Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, would be reinstated. The call of Secretary Kerry and the State Department that democratic conditions would have to be met before the reinstatement of military aid were not only not carried out, they were replaced with the symbolic nod of the head to the Egyptian regime -- placing perceived strategic interest before the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people that brought about the revolution in the first place. This is a misguided calculation that rewards the repression of democratic voices in the name of regional stability.

The U.S. Military Aid Dance

The writing was on the wall when a senior administration official was asked if the 2013 overthrow was a coup, "We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say." The insistence on not calling the overthrow a coup was deliberate, due to the Foreign Assistance Act that states, if a democratically elected government is deposed by a coup d'état then only aid that facilitates democracy promotion may be provided. The U.S. aim was to use financial aid as a lever to pressure Egypt's new government to move swiftly with a democratic transition, without harming the long established strategic partnership between the two countries.

The 2013 roadmap to transition to democracy included: holding a national referendum on an amended constitution, holding parliamentary and then presidential elections within six months of the referendum.

On July 24, 2013 the Pentagon announced that it would delay the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian Air Force to signal the administration's displeasure with the chaotic situation in Egypt -- a major blow to U.S.-Egypt military relations. However, a few months later in November of 2013, Secretary Kerry stated, "The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception." And shortly thereafter, Apache Helicopters were delivered to Egypt.

However, it is 2015; presidential elections took place last year, and Egypt still does not have an elected legislative body. Rather all legislation has occurred through presidential fiat, the executive has become the de-facto legislative authority, and the conditions of the 2013 road map have yet to be fulfilled.

The Stakes:
The view that Egypt's primary strategic value lies in its ability to be a leading regional guarantor of peace with Israel, through its maintenance of the 1978 Camp David Accords, its affording the U.S. unconditional over-flight rights and access to the Suez Canal, and increasingly through joint counter-terrorism cooperation, have shaped the U.S. strategic view of Egypt. And in that view, a stable Egypt, even at the expense of a democratic Egypt takes primacy.

But this strategic view is misappropriated. It is not clear that Egypt's own strategic interest would not be in line with the U.S. without an increasingly authoritarian regime. To argue, as President Obama has; that the security concerns in the wake of the growing threat of ISIS, the role of Egypt in Libya and Yemen, and the strategic cooperating with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, call for the U.S. to return to military aid to Egypt, signals that undemocratic actors can be rewarded if they are perceived to meet U.S. strategic interests.

What this fails to recognize is that authoritarian behavior has been the major source of instability and insecurity in the past and will continue to be in the long run.

For several decades it seems like the U.S. has seen strategic interest and democracy as two sides of the same coin -- that supporting an autocratic leader would lead to long term regional stability. The Arab uprisings proved that this is no longer the case -- autocracy, no matter how seemingly "stable," is unsustainable. The struggle for freedom, dignity and democracy cannot be suppressed, for the route to long-term stability in the region is through a long-term democratic commitment.

Furthermore, domestic instability and civil strife in a country like Egypt cannot be isolated. In Egypt, 54 percent of the population is under the age of twenty-four, and 44 percent of the country lives on less that $2 per day. The youth that led the revolution have been alienated from the entire political process, jailed and seemingly excluded from public expression. Political parties are forced to function within narrowly defined electoral policies. The number of political prisoners has swelled to over 20,000, with some estimates placing the number at 40,000.

For the U.S., the choice to reinstate aid is seen as in the name of U.S. strategic interests. As a result, the model of supporting repressive regimes in the name of stability at the expense of democracy returns. Ultimately, the short-term losers may be the revolutionary forces that were looking to reassert the initial vision of the revolution, while the long-term losers are those that choose supporting increasingly repressive regimes in the name of stability over democracy -- a policy that is sure to see a counter-revolution in the distant future.