End Foreign Aid to Egypt and Stop Underwriting Repression

With dead protesters littering the streets of Cairo, Secretary of State John Kerry’s theory that Egypt’s military rulers “were restoring democracy” isn’t looking very good. The dead won’t be able to vote in the new and improved Egypt.

Instead of acting as the regime’s enabler, the Obama administration should cut off foreign “aid.” If there is influence for Washington to exercise, officials should do so quietly and informally.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy toward Egypt has rarely focused on the Egyptian people. The $75 billion in “aid” was largely a payoff to successive dictators and their military Praetorian Guards. Washington worried about “stability,” not democracy. 

Hosni Mubarak was finally overthrown in 2011. In last year’s presidential election, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi defeated Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik.  The secular liberals were not a factor. 

Morsi failed to establish his organization’s democratic bona fides, and especially to reach out to disaffected Egyptians who only reluctantly backed him. But his opponents were little better, while the Mubarak state remained largely intact and undercut him at every turn.

As I explain in my latest Forbes online column:

It would have taken extraordinary skill, forbearance, and luck, none of which President Morsi possessed, to have succeeded. Had the opposition simply waited Morsi would have discredited political Islam—democratically. In this way, argued Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies: “The Egyptian military may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Instead, Morsi’s disparate opponents backed SCAF in staging the July 3 coup: the president removed, his top aides arrested, his movement’s media shuttered and journalists arrested, the president and others charged with fanciful offenses, and his supporters gunned down in the streets.

Certainly it was an odd way to go about “restoring democracy.” David Kramer, Freedom House’s president, cited a “significant decline in most of the country’s democratic institutions” after Morsi’s ouster. What the al-Sisi government actually restored was the old Mubarak structure.

The Brotherhood resisted the military’s demand for abject surrender. After meeting with government officials Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said: “You could tell people were itching for a fight.”  Indeed, reported the Washington Post, “Two weeks before the bloody crackdown in Cairo, the Obama administration, working with European and Persian Gulf allies, believed it was close to a deal to have Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi disband street encampments in return for a pledge of nonviolence from Egypt’s interim authorities. But the military-backed government rejected the deal and ordered its security forces to break up the protests.” 

The military government acknowledged over 600 dead, and the toll almost certainly was much higher. Many of the killings appeared to be deliberate, the result of army snipers.  Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists decried the “systematic” targeting of the press.

The slaughter in Cairo sparked more violence nationwide, including Brotherhood attacks on government buildings and Coptic churches. Although the army has the near-term advantage, the movement has survived prior attempts at suppression. Moreover, the government is encouraging the rise of a more radical and violent leadership. Al-Qaeda’s head, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a member of the Brotherhood and imprisoned and tortured during a prior crackdown. 

Continuing civil disorder and violence is almost certain. Terrorism is possible. The kind of strife in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and Algeria in the 1990s also is a risk. Of course, in any such conflict there will be little room for liberal and democratic values.   

The Obama administration has ignored U.S. law requiring an aid cut-off after a coup because it wanted to preserve its “leverage.”  Unfortunately, Washington has consistently demonstrated its impotence in Cairo. Most recently, Washington has been begging the military to promote reconciliation, without evident success. 

The carnage in Cairo mimics that in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  To subsidize Cairo today is to underwrite murder. Washington’s best policy is to support neither side and leave this tragic conflict to the Egyptian people.