CAIRO, Egypt — The US decision to suspend a substantial chunk of military aid to Egypt may have prompted a defiant response from the Egyptian government, but it is not the blow that it seems.
The State Department announced Wednesday that it would be suspending deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters and missiles to Cairo as well as $260 million in cash assistance to the government, “pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government.”
However, it said that counterterrorism funding would remain unaffected, as would support for an ongoing military operation targeting jihadist militants in restive North Sinai.
Despite public consternation from Egypt’s military leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, experts say the partial suspension amounts to little more than a symbolic warning for a country with which the US wishes to maintain strong ties.
“I don’t see it as any more than a symbolic slap on the wrist,” said Dr. H. A. Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
“This is only a partial suspension of aid, it is a bluff from everybody. Egypt is too important to the American regional paradigm, and America is too vital for Egypt’s current strategic positioning, for either to cut [the] other off.”
The State Department has told congressional aides that it is respecting a law that bars aid to foreign governments in the event of a coup, Reuters reported Saturday. Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was unseated in a July 3 military takeover.
American officials have grown uneasy at Egypt’s political trajectory in the months since. The country's military-backed authorities have embarked on a sweeping crackdown against the former president’s supporters, diminishing short-term prospects for reconciliation.
The continuation of military aid in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster prompted fierce debate within Washington.
But changes to Egypt’s aid package had started long before this past week. According to Robert Springborg, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., $100 million had already been earmarked to shift from weapons procurement to counterterrorism measures. “This was not a bolt from the blue for the military or government of Egypt,” he said.
Egypt has been one of the world’s largest recipients of US military and economic aid since its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The annual sum of $1.55 billion, including $1.3 billion in direct military assistance, is often seen as a financial incentive for upholding the peace treaty and cooperating on other issues.
The specifics of the US aid suspension have yet to be formally revealed, but it is expected to affect deliveries of M1A1 battle tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and a dozen Apache AH-64D helicopters that were part of an $820 million order dating back to 2009.
Although these are not vital to core army functions at present, Egypt’s military-backed authorities nonetheless reacted haughtily to the decision to freeze some aid.
According to London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, General Sisi used a Thursday telephone conversation with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to stress that Egypt is "bigger" than any American threats, and that it rejects the manner in which the US is dealing with it.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty described the US aid decision as “wrong,” telling a local radio station: “Egypt will not surrender to American pressure and is continuing its path towards democracy as set by the roadmap.” Unveiled in July, Egypt’s political “roadmap” sets out the steps the country will take toward fresh parliamentary and presidential elections, expected to be held next year.
The US decision is also likely to prompt further hostility from the Egyptian street. Anti-American sentiment has risen significantly since the coup. Many Egyptians believe that international condemnation of the putsch fails to give credit to millions of protesters who took to the streets on June 30, demanding Morsi’s ouster.
In downtown Cairo, banners decry US foreign policy. Outside one petrol station, a large poster depicts President Barack Obama’s face nestled in Osama bin Laden’s beard.
On Tuesday, US officials suggested that their decision had been prompted by an “accumulation of events,” presumably since Morsi’s ouster.
Three state-led crackdowns against Morsi supporters between July and August left over one thousand people dead. On Oct. 6, 57 anti-coup protesters were shot dead by police after a national holiday ended in deadly clashes.
Although it has been widely suggested that the US decision was taken in direct response to the latest deaths, Hellyer, of the Royal United Services Institute, believes it was more closely linked to the events of the summer. “This is a natural consequence of the bloodshed at Rabaa [el Adaweya, the mosque in Cairo where hundreds of Muslim Bortherhood supporters were killed] and of no measures having taken place to address violence from the security forces since then,” said Hellyer. “But it could have happened the week before or the week after.”
He added: “The main thing of concern to the Americans was the impact of a certain level of violence and the way it destabilises the country. Stability is primary to any American administration’s security paradigm to the region.”
In recent years, the US has tried to convince Egypt’s generals to broaden the scope of their equipment requests, arguing that they need to prepare for the sorts of conflicts that Egypt might face in the future. Much of its current arsenal is geared toward a land war with neighboring countries.
“It’s a political decision, taken to get the Obama administration off the hook with Congress and global public opinion while at the same time not really imposing any real pain or suffering either on the Egyptian military or on American-Egyptian relations,” said Springborg, the national security professor.
Speaking to GlobalPost on the condition of anonymity, a Cairo-based western diplomat said that the suspension of American aid would be unlikely to affect the funding decisions of their European counterparts, either.