Calls in Washington to suspend military aid to Egypt are fueling an already blazing fire. Although a serious review of the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt is long overdue, raising the threat in the midst of a burning crisis is dangerous. The Egyptian military, the primary beneficiary of U.S. aid, will play a significant role in shaping the contours of the post-Mubarak system. The United States' ability to influence that system is already limited. Freezing military aid now undermines what leverage the U.S. government does have to promote a post-Mubarak system that is more than just a reconfiguration of the status quo.
The challenge is to convince the generals in and out of uniform that their interests are best served by a more inclusive and transparent political system once Mubarak leaves the stage. That is a difficult case to make. It requires that the U.S. government maintain the trust and cooperation of the military leadership. The ongoing verbal barbs between Washington and Cairo are eroding that trust by the day, and Cairo's turmoil may get worse before it gets better.
Regardless of how events unfold, the military will aim to preserve its unique position within the Egyptian governing system. The question then is not so much when Mubarak steps down, but what kind of post-Mubarak political system the military brass seeks to shape. That is the subject of intense internal debate and could evolve over time. The outcome is unlikely to satisfy the millions of Egyptians who have risen up against the Mubarak regime. It may also fall short of U.S. expectations of a rapid transition to a more representative Egyptian political system.
In balancing its own interests with the expectations of other actors, the Egyptian military faces a range of challenges that defy easy resolution. The debate over the future role of the Muslim Brotherhood is a prime example. No representative system can take root in Egypt without the Brotherhood's participation. But, after spending the last half century battling Islamist political forces, the military leadership will have trouble overcoming its deep disdain for the Brotherhood. Other examples abound and confront the military with difficult choices. In all of this, the threat of abandoning the U.S.-Egypt military relationship will only complicate those calculations and preclude the United States from any chance of influencing possible outcomes.
Granted, the military aid relationship requires a serious debate, which the dramatic uprising in Egypt has helped spark. The imbalance between military and economic aid over the last several decades may have been short-sighted. But cutting military aid in the face of such uncertainty to fix the imbalance would be equally myopic. Today that aid serves as a critical link between the U.S. government and an important constituency that will help shape the destiny of Egypt. Cutting that link at such a critical juncture heightens the risk that the next Egyptian regime will be no different than the last.
Haim Malka is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.