After Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the U.S. was at pains to emphasize to Egypt’s new leaders the value of the rule of law. So it has been discomfiting to watch the Barack Obama administration ignore it since the July 3 overthrow of elected President Mohamed Mursi.
The military takeover was clearly a coup. Yet the U.S. has been pretending otherwise in order to get around a law that requires the suspension of U.S. aid to any country in those circumstances. The administration presumably worries that suspending $1.55 billion in yearly aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the military, would threaten the peace between Egypt and Israel as well as Egypt’s stability. If true, such thinking suggests the administration needs to update its approach to Egypt.
The aid package to Egypt was originally intended as a reward for making peace with Israel in 1979. That logic no longer holds: There is little danger of Egypt attacking Israel today, not least because its military is vastly inferior to Israel’s. What’s more, U.S. assistance is insignificant compared with the many billions Egypt draws from oil-rich Persian Gulf states.
The Obama administration may fret that suspending the handouts would weaken the relationship between the Egyptian and U.S. militaries. This may be true. But if the relationship wasn’t strong or deep enough to dissuade the Egyptian brass from overthrowing an elected president, maybe it’s not all that valuable in the first place.
In any case, a cutoff of U.S. aid needn’t last long. The administration could work with Congress to legally waive the sanctions. There is a precedent: After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush won congressional approval to restore assistance to Pakistan that had been halted because of a 1999 coup led by General Pervez Musharraf.
If it’s going to Congress, the administration might also use the occasion as leverage with Egypt. Mursi is still being held by the military, for example. He should be released. The Egyptian military should stop arresting and working up charges against the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it did during the days of former President Hosni Mubarak. And the restoration of aid should also be conditioned on the holding of new free and fair elections.
Of course, all of this will be something of a charade, because it’s unlikely Congress would deny the administration’s request; only a few members of Congress have so far called for suspending aid to Egypt. At least it would contain the duplicity to the political process instead of casting doubt on the U.S.’s devotion to a core principle such as the rule of law.
It would have been better had U.S. officials thought through all this before the coup in Egypt. The protests that preceded it were planned weeks in advance and spawned speculation of a military takeover. The generals gave Mursi and the world 48 hours’ notice of their action. U.S. foreign policy makers had time to form their response. Instead, they looked worse than unprepared -- they looked like dissemblers and hypocrites.
The sooner the lapse is corrected, the better. Certainly it should be fixed before the U.S. and other world powers begin a fresh round of negotiations with Iran, under a new president, over its nuclear program. In geopolitics, credibility is a currency at least as important as guns and money. America’s could use a boost.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at email@example.com.