The US-Egypt aid freeze: why now and does it matter?
US State Secretary John Kerry (R) meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy prior to the start of the UN general assembly in New York on September 22, 2013. © Emmanuel Dunand - AFP/File
The US-Egypt aid freeze: why now and does it matter?
Last updated: October 27, 2013
The US-Egypt aid freeze: why now and does it matter?

“The US has no intention of punishing the new military regime in Cairo but can only tolerate so much domestic pressure”

Banner Icon The timing and content of the recent US aid freeze shows that it is a largely symbolic measure, writes Karim Adel El-Sayed.

In order to analyse the recent US aid freeze to Egypt, we must discuss three key factors: the timing of the decision, the Obama administration’s confused policy on Egypt reflected in the fine print of the decision, and the political impact of the aid freeze.

First let us turn to the perplexing timing, which raised many eyebrows inside Egypt. Five days after the military coup, which unseated Egypt’s first and thus far only democratically elected president, at least 57 people were gunned down outside the Republican Guard Headquarters. The US did nothing. Near the end of that same month, on July 27th, 81 people were killed by the regime across Cairo in a single day. The US, again, did nothing. Then on August 14th, the huge (and peaceful) protest camps in east Cairo were forcibly dispersed through the generous application of lethal force and live rounds, as inhabited tents were torched. Anywhere between 630 and 2,600 people were killed in the space of just a few hours. The US, again, did nothing. It was only on October 6th, when the cumulative death toll had spiralled into quadruple digits and an additional 51 people were killed on Egypt’s national holiday to commemorate the 1973 October War that the US decided to act. Thus the question begging to be asked is, quite simply, why now? The reasons for a decision are as important, if not more so, than the consequences. As the influential former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once famously quipped, “the essential ingredient of politics is timing.”

Had the intention of an aid cut been to stop the massacres, surely the Republican Guard HQ massacre would have been an ideal time to slap the regime on the wrist? However, if we accept the argument that the Obama administration wished to give the new regime the benefit of the doubt, then surely the blood drenched clearing of the Rabaa’ Al-Adaweya camp site would have been the perfect opportunity to show American disapproval? US inaction on these fronts should tame our expectations of what Obama is trying to achieve. Far from sending a clear message of US outrage at the seemingly casual disregard for human life and political freedoms expressed by the new putschist regime, it seems that the aim of the aid freeze had less to do with politics in Cairo and more to do with politics in Congress.

Having refused to call a spade a spade and declare that what happened when the Defence Minister Abdelfattah El-Sisi unseated an elected president, suspended the constitution, shut down opposition TV stations, banned an entire ideology and gunned down its adherents as a military coup – a decision which would have automatically cut off aid to Egypt under The Foreign Assistance Act – pressure was growing inside of America to force Obama to do something, anything, to show disapproval. Enter the October 6th death toll as a convenient pretext and thus, voila, the aid freeze was born. Now that Obama has placated his domestic critics, will he really care that much about what the Egyptian army do next, so long as the violence winds down? When looked at from this perspective, perhaps the aid freeze wasn’t meant to have too large an impact on the military to begin with.

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This hypothesis is reinforced by the second key factor – the actual content of the decision, which upon closer inspection constitutes less of an aid freeze, as it has come to be known by the media, and more of a “temporary and slight aid reduction”.  Although the $260 million in aid for the general Egyptian budget will surely be missed, the extent of its impact will be more than covered by the $12 billion transferred to Egypt from the Gulf states – a point the US administration almost certainly took into consideration before announcing the “aid freeze”. Other than this, the only changes to the flow of aid are in terms of military hardware of which the Egyptian military already has plenty and hasn’t used in decades. This half-in half-out approach is indicative of Obama’s confused policy towards Egypt: not quite supporting democracy and not quite supporting the new regime. Even whilst announcing the aid freeze, the US administration bent over backwards to stress that they were attempting to reaffirm their valuable relationship with Cairo rather than deliver a rebuke – hardly a stern warning to the Egyptian military. Much like the timing of the aid freeze, the fine print also shows us that this is largely meant to be a symbolic gesture as opposed to a concrete shift in policy.

Only once we bear in mind the timid nature of the freeze and its incongruous timing can we then analyse its effect on the Egyptian military regime. It is no secret that US aid to Egypt effectively acts as a bribe in order to maintain the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Israel’s outrage and worry over the aid freeze, as well as their active lobbying in America to have it reinstated, should be ample proof of that. What will the political consequences of this reduction in aid be? There are unlikely to be major shifts on either side, however it will still be seen as an unnerving warning shot inside Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo – despite the repeated assurances from America whilst announcing their decision. The fact that the US had to have its hand pushed to act does not detract from the fact that its position did indeed shift once – however nominally – and hence may shift again.

The message of the aid freeze, although a weak and spineless one, is clear nonetheless: the US has no intention of punishing the new military regime in Cairo but can only tolerate so much domestic pressure and as such may be forced to take escalating action to show as much. The severely delayed timing and fine print of the decision to freeze aid visibly exemplify this.

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