What the U.S. should do about Egypt’s Military, and why it will Never Happen

Earlier this week, Egypt’s military “transferred power to the military,” as the Masry Al-Youm newspaper put it.  The military declared the current parliament unconstitutional, dissolved it, granted itself sweeping executive and legislative powers, and severely limited the power of the presidency.  This blatant power grab has been called a ” soft coup” because, without rolling out tanks or storming government buildings, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has seized power.  In response, protesters have gathered once again in Tahrir square, a combination which is likely to lead to violence.  It’s possible that this conflict could lead to a situation similar to what we have seen in Syria, since the main reason that there was comparatively little violence during the protests to overthrow Mubarak was that the military abandoned him and refuse to attack protesters.
All of this raises a difficult question to the U.S. government: what to do about it.  Egypt has been a key Middle East ally for the U.S.  Since the Cold War, one of the reasons why it convenient to support Mubarak is even though his government was a dictatorship in all but name.  This supply was more than verbal; the U.S. has been providing more than a billion dollars of military aid to Egypt since 1979. In March, the president and secretary of State encourage Congress to continue the aid, waving a new restriction that ties military aid to the preservation of basic freedoms.  However, given the military’s latest move, it seems likely that they will be using U.S. aid to finance a crackdown on civilian protesters.
Throughout the recent Middle East uprisings, the Obama administration has temporized, calling for democracy while at the same time trying not to alienate the current regime in case they retain power.  in Egypt, staying out of it isn’t an option.  Unless the U.S. stops military aid to Egypt immediately, they will be supporting SCAF in its takeover, and while it’s natural to court the faction currently in power, if there’s one thing that r recent events in the Middle East have taught us, it’s that authoritarian regimes eventually fail.  Moreover, when the regime is overthrown the revolutionaries don’t tend to be well disposed to its supporters.  Another important reason to back away from egypt’s military is the president Obama has made a policy of being open to the Muslim brotherhood taking a role in governing Egypt.  After this policy change, funding SCAF as they maneuver to cut the Muslim brotherhood out of government would be seen as a betrayal.
Stopping, or at least suspending, military aid to Egypt is an obvious and necessary move which isn’t going to happen.  First, in spite of recent events, Egypt and military is seen by many as a stabilizing influence.  There is a school of thought that is prevalent in American foreign policy which says that stability, even at the price of sacrificing human rights, is better than political turmoil.  This is the sort of thinking which led to the U.S. supporting a whole host of dictator is, including Mubarak and former Tunisian leader Ben Ali, but to certain extent that makes sense.  When making foreign policy, particularly in strategically important areas, you have to deal with the person is running the country, not the person you wish was running the country.  In this case, however, the U.S. has come out publicly in support of Egypt’s protesters and hailed their struggle for democracy.  It’s too late to support oppression in the name of stability now.
The second reason the military aid to Egypt will continue in spite of everything is that foreign policy has a huge amount of inertia.  For example, America continues to run and Pakistan as a key partner in the struggle against Al qaida even though it is now obvious that Pakistan on a key role in starting Al Qaeda and continues to support radical Islamist groups.  In the same way, the U.S. military partnership with Egypt has been a cornerstone of Middle East policy for so long metal be difficult to reevaluate it.  Even when SCAF detained and threatened to try several American democracy activists, the U.S. only threatened to suspend the military aid, and it restarted the aid as soon as the Americans were released on bail.
Finally, the U.S. likes to use the threat of stopping aid as leverage to persuade egypt’s military to do what it wants.  Stopping the aid in response to the military’s power grab means that we can no longer use it as leverage.  On the other hand, SCAF has shown its a very determined to hang on to power, so it’s unlikely to back down at the mere threat of being cut off from U.S. aid.  Furthermore, the threat of cutting off aid is useless if it’s obvious that the U.S. would never do it.  Taking a stand now and will therefore strengthen America’s position were negotiating with recalcitrant partners in the future.
This course of action is not without risk.  Cutting support for Egypt’s military will cause a lot of anger, and the damage U.S. Egypt relations if the military hangs on to bear on long-term.  However, we have seen the damage that supporting dictators and oppressive regimes has done to the world’s perceptions of the United States, and in the long term that is the greater damage.  Most importantly, for decades president after president has insisted that America exists to promote democracy all over the world, and if it means anything at all, the U.S. cannot turn its back on Egypt and its protesters now.