Egypt, the U.S. and the Limits of Foreign Aid

10/10/2013 12:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Obama administration did not invoke the "coup" clause in the Foreign Aid Bill, so it does not have to automatically cut off all foreign aid to Egypt, yet it announced the withholding of cash transfer of $260 million and some military shipments. A message was sent, but what exactly? To whom? Why now? And what are the expected results?

All these questions should not have been asked if the administration really had a clear and consistent policy with regards to Egypt, but it does not, and so the recent announcement, far from clarifying, just added confusion, and not only in Egypt.

Some context is needed here: Cairo was the scene of the famous speech of President Obama, calling for historic reconciliation with the Muslim world, criticizing authoritarianism and still pledging support and friendship to the host president, Hosni Mubarak. Whether the anti-Mubarak street revolution of early 2011 was exclusively motivated, though belatedly, by the speech is something which commentators already debate and historians are sure to do as well. We simply do not have enough perspective to pass a judgment, but the administration is not about interpreting events for the sake of writing history books, it is about trying to help shape events in a way which will be conducive to American interests and values, so they may deserve credit for being even somewhat responsible to the initial success of the revolution, but not beyond.

At some point the administration policy started to fluctuate, lost any semblance of coherence, and consequently the ability to be an important actor in the thorny road towards democracy; and not less important, also stability in Egypt. There was pressure put on the Egyptian military to hasten the process of handing over control to civilians, something which had to lead to a Muslim Brotherhood [MB] victory, which seemed inevitable to almost every seasoned Egypt observer. The questions that arise are very simple: did the administration believe that the results would be different? In that case, their reading of the situation was grossly flawed.

Or, maybe the administration anticipated a MB victory and was ready to accept it believing that it would bring democracy and stability, while not adversely affecting regional stability. In that case, the grim, inevitable conclusion must be, that the Administration was infected with a very substantial dose of optimism, some will say it was too naïve to believe it.

The MB did not come to power after 80 years of being subjected to sustained repression in order to enjoy just the fruits of government. They came to start a sustained process of Islamization of Egypt. The writing was on the wall, among other things, when the Christian minority became subjected to a campaign of harassment and persecution, and to a lesser extent, also the small Shiite community, and the administration kept mum and said and did nothing.

It should have been crystal clear that the military would not accept complete, one-sided MB control, and not so much for love of democracy, much more importantly, because the military had no intention of relinquishing its dominant position in the politics; and more so, the economy of Egypt. It was also obvious that the anti-MB street protest alone could not bring the MB down. The courage shown by the protestors, first against Mubarak and then against Morsi, is to be admired by all freedom loving people, but the truth, perhaps the uncomfortable one, is that in both cases it was the Egyptian military, NOT the Egyptian people, which clinched the deal, and made the political changes inevitable.

Under these circumstances it was and still is the utmost interest of the administration to work with the Egyptian military, which is there to stay. So, too, will the MB, but the latter are not and would not be reliable partners to the US and the West in building democracy and stability in Egypt. Winning elections is a feature of democracy, but respecting the rights of minorities is also so essential, alongside other manifestations of a genuine democratic regime which Morsi and the MB worked against in a period of just one year.

It follows that the more acceptable, natural allies of the US administration in Egypt are the military and the liberal sections of the population, not the MB. This is not a choice between good and evil, it is a much greyer choice, but still in the Egyptian context, the inevitable one. A choice must be made, because the protagonists in Egypt cannot and will not Come to a democratic accommodation. For both sides, control over Egypt is not just a question of political expediency, it is a matter of survival.

The MB are not the lot of people who will acknowledge American gestures of good will and consequently reciprocate with a policy conducive with American interests and values. By confronting the military as the Obama administration is doing now, when the MB are and will continue to be anti-American, the US is losing its ability to effectively influence the Egyptian situation. The stick of aid is there, but it was used too prematurely, in a way which indicates a desire to save face rather than a result of a strategic, well-calculated decision. The military did not get from the administration the same amount of patience which was shown to towards the MB. They deserved it, even though they made clear that the MB would have to be stopped.

No more democracy will suddenly descend on the Egyptian people, and if this is what is expected of the latest administration step, it is wrong. But unintended and negative consequences can and are more likely to occur. For example, a growing sense of confusion among most of America's allies in the Middle East, and that in the aftermath of the confusion over Iran and Syria, may prove to be just a little too much in a volatile region. Not something which will serve American interests.