Why US looks set to continue Egypt funding - for now

Egyptian protester and military helicopter Most of Egypt's modern military equipment have been financed by a US assistance scheme

A decision by the United States to continue giving military aid to the Egyptian army would be a fork in the road moment in Middle East politics.

But despite President Barack Obama's early appeals for restraint and announcement that this military assistance was "under review", the signs in Washington are that this is precisely what he intends to do.

The acquiescence by Western countries to the Algerian army's coup of 1992, overthrowing an elected Islamist government, defined a generation of militants.

When the Bush administration, almost a decade later, put forward its ideas about spreading democracy in the region following 9/11, the-then secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, insisted that the power of popular votes was more important than the maintenance in power of American allies in the region.

Key Middle East ally

For 12 years the White House has extolled democracy even when its outcome often seemed to challenge US interests. Now it seems ready to acquiesce in the Egyptian army's ousting of President Mohammed Morsi and it is perhaps all the more remarkable that this shift should be happening under Mr Obama.

Engaging on background terms with Americans who have been instrumental in formulating recent Middle East policy it is apparent that they believe the assistance, valued at $1.3bn in 2010, should go on.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has lambasted the US and EU over their response to events in Egypt

When I asked one senior military type whether it should stop, the answer was: "No I do not think so, as this appears to be a pretty widely supported move by the [Egyptian] military."

Another former US government official suggested the White House approach of raising concerns while using the aid as leverage to insure a rapid return to an elected government was the right one.

Many in Washington evidently fear that a rapid severance would leave them without influence in that equation, one noting that the US has felt like "a bystander" in Egypt during the past year.

Among Middle East public the quantity and effect of US military aid tends to be over-estimated. Egypt's package has been in place since the 1981 peace agreement with Israel, and essentially it operates like a credit note which the Egyptian army can spend in the US on hardware.

Most of the modern Egyptian weapons' programmes from the F-16 fighter to M1 tank or Apache helicopter have been financed under this scheme.

The $1.3bn given annually in this form compares to $18bn pledged in financial aid by Arab neighbours - notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia - since the Egyptian revolution of 2011 or the country's $20bn annual bill for subsidising fuel and food.

Nevertheless the help given to the Egyptian generals has long created the impression of a Middle East strategic alliance second only in importance to that of the US with Israel.

Long review period

The bloodshed in Cairo on Friday though highlights the political risks for the Obama administration in continuing such a close relationship. There is a feeling among those who I contacted that they cannot give carte blanche for repression in Egypt, one noting, "I don't think we should terminate security assistance funds right away".

This then hints at a possibility that if there is increasing bloodshed, or a recognition after some months that the army's professed desire to hold new presidential and parliamentary elections as soon as possible cannot be relied upon, American policy may change. The US president's "review" could therefore be a long lasting affair.

That approach though does not mollify the strong feelings of this moment. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey lambasted the European Union and US on Friday, noting that events in Egypt were a "test of sincerity" for their professed support of democracy in the region, "and the West failed the class".

Assailed by popular protest, and in a country notorious for military interventions in politics, it is not hard to see why Mr Erdogan should be particularly sensitive on the topic. It is an odd thing though to see Egypt suspended from the African Union, but with the EU and US declining to call events in Egypt a coup d'├ętat.

Until this week, anti-Morsi demonstrators had been accusing the US of backing the unpopular president. Now he has been deposed, it seems, that his Muslim Brotherhood supporters may also be angry with the US for sitting on its hands and providing more weapons to the Egyptian army.

Thus there are risks for the White House not only of abandoning the stated support for Middle East democracy of the past 12 years, but also of firing deep antagonism among broad swathes of Egyptians.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Awareness of "face value"
    Meaning: democracy, Rule Of, For, By, the EQUAL People
    Complexity: faced by all, including Morsi & Obama
    Danger: in careless use of words

    'Coup' & 'cynical' used @15 to blame 'like Obama' for our joint entrapment, in manufactured ignorance of equal partnership

    'Disenfranchisement' @16 misleads; lacking universal belonging (full employment) freedom is an illusion

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    What happened after the Algerian coup gave Islamist terrorists legitimacy. When will they ever learn?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "When the Bush administration, almost a decade later, put forward its ideas about spreading democracy...."

    Mark, you can't take at face value US propaganda. It was never about democracy. It was always about installing friendly US puppet regimes that, preferably, hosted big US bases Japan-style & sold them cheap oil pumped by US multi-nationals. With Iraq, they got more than they bargained for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    It is disgusting to hear the word "democracy" from any USA politician.

    War, weapons, killings, bombs, espionage,..... these are the words which suit them

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I feel sorry for people who still think that USA has any interest in democracy. Selling weapons is the back bone of American economy. And you don't sell weapons to peacful countries democratic countries.

    Destabilized regions and countries are what make USA properous and more influential,

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    We also see in this, that the West hasn't learnt a thing about the root causes of terrorism. Posters cannot see past Morsi's Islamist background. They cannot see the bigger picture. They cannot see that engaging all elements in a national dialogue & having them invested in the democratic process is far more preferable than effectively disenfranchising a significant (& potentially dangerous) group.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Mark, you express surprise that the US is tacitly supporting this coup. No surprise on this end. BO is the most cynical politician we've seen in recent memory. He came to power on a promise of change. Instead what we see is more of the same. It's because of politicians like him we see such political apathy in the West. A learned helplessness that no matter who you vote for, nothing ever changes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Apparently the Egyptian people do not want an Islamist state.
    I did not want a conservative government but had to wait 5 years to get rid of them.where is the British military when you need them, are they not patriots like Egypt's?

    Democracy through military takeovers has been successful all over the world as we know!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    "An odd thing"
    That 'unions' of dysfunctional non-democracies fear revolution 'by the people'?

    Backed by the army of the people, Egyptians need to focus on individual security (work found or made for all to belong) and national prosperity (through equal partnership), in a land where all can be happy to live, to visit, & to conduct business, knowing trust as rational, corruption precluded

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    It is not as though the Egyptian military planned and then staged a coup, but rather was confronted by massive public protests which too easily could have gone out of control and so then the military took action. And now it appears that only the Muslim Brotherhood could be critical of that.

    Apparently the Egyptian people do not want an Islamist state.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    United States to continue giving military aid to the Egyptian army ? Is the United States about to stop supporting Israel?

    It is an odd thing though to see Egypt suspended from the African Union, but with the EU and US declining to call events in Egypt a coup d'├ętat.
    The Emperor's New Clothes!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    'By the way
    What means democracy?'

    In 'a deeply divided country', if divided by the means to influence the LAWS of that country, there is NO democracy, but at best its vain emulation, more the exercise of ignorant or deliberate sham, all trapped in fear & greed, the people directed by materially NON-representatives, hierarchy of Quislings of Mammon

    Naturally grim, even on sunny days

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Frank Gardner tells "a dangerous moment", having in mind Algeria's "terrifying precedent"

    If a widely/militarily rejected group, still fearful or aggressive, is 'driven underground', ongoing injustice will fuel with naive new recruits & all species of mischief-maker, native & alien

    All for went of understanding. No hope for any - for peace and prosperity to be shared - without equal partnership

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    By the way, what means the term "democracy" in a deeply divided (without substantial majority) country? Is a civil war a form (at least temporary form) of democracy? Maybe it is not good for a country without democratic traditions to attempt democracy while it is too seriously divided about the matters on which the whole life of big parts of the population depends?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Kal82 @6
    Across the world, UNEQUAL, unhappiness/misery/anger WILL be found in ALL groups, & so in almost ALL groups there WILL be temper & reaction, even 'ordinary citizens' obliged to defend home & family, maybe to risk protest & risk violence, with a few INTENT on violence (for MANY 'reasons' incl paid), all vain in the absence of 'word on the street' that WE need EQUAL partnership

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Egypt is currently fighting a war against a terrorist organisation with a religious fascist ideology based on ostracising, minorities, women and anyone who disagrees with them. The Muslim Brotherhood have shown their ugly face today in Egypt, marching all the way to Tahrir, armed with batons, molotov cocktails & firearms, attacking unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square. Terrorists!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    For politicians, especially in West, also in client-states, it may be 'impossible' to be honest with electorates, AND still hope for support from opinion-forming media owners

    From the BBC though, we should expect freedom to be frank, to ensure no citizen is left at the mercy of misinformation and of semantic deprivation, called to die for a 'democracy' that is - without equal partnership - a sham

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Mark, perhaps fair to say that - at least in public - "the White House has extolled democracy", but can we not discuss the reality, that the US does NOT exemplify 'democracy', and that without equal partnership - between equal citizens - there can be NO material representation, and NO democratic legitimacy, making leadership an alternation of rival groups in dangerous dictatorship... ruin for all

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    In Syria we condemn the army for killing its own people and we arm the rebels who are fighting for 'democracy'. So where does that leave us with Egypt now the army there have killed their own population who are just calling for the return of their democratically elected government.
    Our governments just use whatever argument they can in order to justify backing whoever they support.


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