The debate over how the Obama administration should respond to the crisis in Egypt has mistaken a lack of political will in Washington for a lack of influence over Cairo, and incorrectly concluded that because General Abdelfatah al-Seesi might resist American pressure, no such pressure should be applied.
It is true al-Seesi would probably begrudge the White House and Congress if they sanction him over last week’s massacre of hundreds of civilians, which Human Rights Watch called the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings” in modern Egypt. He might even revisit the privileged U.S. access through Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal.
But neither that contingency nor the outlandish suggestion that Egypt might break its treaty with Israel should give pause to U.S. policy makers who care more about defeating al-Qaeda than preserving a Cold War security framework. In the 1980s, Egypt was a centerpiece of U.S. force projection, as the Pentagon wanted to block a putative Soviet push toward the Persian Gulf. Today, sending U.S. troops east matters less than stopping terrorists headed in the other direction. Mitigating the dangers of al-Seesi’s domestic policies for Americans outweighs any strategic perks he may offer or rescind.
Repression in Egypt has long been an incubator of violent Islamists, producing not only the spiritual leader behind the first World Trade Center bombing but also the lead hijacker of the Sept. 11 attacks. For those concerned about keeping Americans safe, therefore, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Given the cost in lives and treasure of the war on terrorism, President Barack Obama has rightly spoken of a day when the campaign will conclude, and has touted his administration’s progress at defeating al-Qaeda.
Al-Seesi now threatens to roll back that success. It is hard to imagine a greater victory for al-Qaeda than the rise of a new dictatorship on the Nile, an unrepentant police state that drives young Egyptians to build bombs instead of casting ballots. If the bloodshed and repression continue, Egypt’s junta could easily create more al-Qaeda lieutenants than U.S. drones have ever killed.
A robust U.S. response to al-Seesi’s crackdown will recognize that stopping terrorism before it starts matters more than war-gaming another Persian Gulf invasion. The natural pressure point is Washington’s almost unparalleled assistance to Egypt. Critics of an aid cutoff argue that the funds provided by Arab Gulf monarchies already dwarf the $1.5 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance. Moreover, Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, has vowed that his country would briskly replace any amount the U.S. withholds. The Saudis’ pledge would seemingly negate any U.S. aid suspension, as advocated by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham -- and mandated under U.S. law when a coup topples a democratically elected government.
In practice, however, Arab states couldn’t easily fill the U.S.’s role or Egypt’s inventories. The dollar figure of U.S. assistance -- which carries half the real value of 25 years ago -- is not as important as what the Egyptian military purchases with it. Al-Seesi may attract billions from the Gulf, but, without American consent, that cash won’t grant access to the advanced weaponry, vehicles and training that sustain the Egyptian army’s prestige. Therein lies the lever for U.S. policy.
Al-Seesi might shrug off a simple aid cut, but an embargo on U.S. weapons to Egypt, including the commercial sale of tear gas and rifles to the country’s notorious police, and a freeze on the training of Egyptian officers in U.S. military service academies would compel his attention. (The European Union is moving to adopt similar measures.) It would also advance the U.S. struggle against al-Qaeda. By imposing a moratorium on assistance to Egyptian security forces until they demonstrate a stronger commitment to human rights, the U.S. would repudiate the violence of the Egyptian state while discrediting the appeals of nonstate militants.
U.S. relations with Indonesia, a prosperous Muslim democracy and lodestar for Obama during the Arab Spring, illustrate the potential gains of this alternative course. When the U.S.-backed regime of President Suharto killed 250 noncombatants in East Timor in 1991, Congress and the George H.W. Bush administration restricted military sales to Indonesia and excluded the country from the International Military Exercise and Training program that brings foreign officers to the U.S. (Under IMET, dozens of Egyptian officers study in the U.S. each year.) Eight years later, when the militias of Suharto’s successor killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, Bill Clinton’s administration expanded the ban to include other types of armaments. The embargo remained in place as Indonesians wrote a new constitution and held their first genuinely free and fair elections. Full military collaboration with the U.S. resumed years later.
The Indonesian case provides a real-world example of how restricting arms exports to a major ally can advance U.S. interests and help to deliver the kind of democracy Obama envisioned in his first term, when he called for a “New Beginning” in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. In that speech, delivered from Cairo, the president contended that protecting human rights makes governments “ultimately more stable, successful and secure.” Political leaders, he went on, must maintain their “power through consent, not coercion.” These commitments, which reflect U.S. ideals and security interests, are betrayed by U.S. deference to Egypt’s generals.
Unless the White House and Congress are willing to put U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation on the line with a comprehensive ban on U.S. weapons exports, the new beginning of which Obama spoke may be irretrievably lost. What we may find in its place are the familiar and bloody tit-for-tat that pits state security forces against religious fanatics and the demise of the democratic principles for which so many Egyptian revolutionaries have already given their lives.
(Jason Brownlee is associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance.”)
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