By James Colbert
WASHINGTON, D.C. –Providing the Egyptian military with unrestricted military assistance no longer serves American goals. While conditional aid is a relatively weak diplomatic tool, it is the only approach left to the United States to alter meaningfully Egypt’s negative trajectory that is propelled by an economy nearing collapse, ongoing human rights abuses, and a pronounced lack of individual liberties and protections for women and religious minorities. Furthermore, the Egyptian military has demonstrated a clear lack of will to adequately police the Sinai, which is being lost to terrorist groups that threaten Israel.
Due to its paramount desire to continue receiving the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. defense funding and the fact that it has enormous equities in the economic sector, the Egyptian military is uniquely suited to be an agent for change. It is disciplined, centrally controlled and, through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), plays the dominant role in the running of the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, prioritizes maximizing its political gains regardless of the national turmoil that is likely to ensue from the policies it would pursue.
Rocked by the collapse of foreign tourism and rising food prices, Egypt’s economy is on the verge of failure. U.S. assistance is possibly the only lifelineÂ to avoid a complete breakdown left to Egypt. The stakes are too high to justify inaction.
Congress had it right when, late last year, it added language to the FY 2012 Foreign Operations Bill requiring the State Department to certify that the military leadership was supporting Egypt’s transition to civilian rule including holding free and fair elections, implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and abiding by the principle of due process before committing military aid funds.
The Egyptian military can be a powerful advocate for the enshrinement of these principles (listed above) in clear and specific language in Egypt’s new constitution, which will be drafted within the next few months, thereby blunting radical provisions expected to be championed by supporters of the Islamist parties. To that end, the Administration, in partnership with Congress – where both political parties support such efforts – should be firm in their insistence that such efforts be made. Conditioning military aid will demonstrate the seriousness with which the United States regards the issue. While a principled constitution is not a sufficient condition for a free society, it is a necessary one.
Furthermore, the Egyptian military should push for legislation and subsequent enforcement of the new laws designed to halt rampant corruption in Egyptian government agencies and departments.
The redrafting of the Egyptian constitution is a unique opportunity to leverage American aid. By waiving the Congressional conditions on military aid and sending a signal that it will waive future legislative mandates, the Administration is undermining its ability to realize the long-term American objective of Egyptian stability, economic growth, and the development of civil society institutions necessary for good governance.
If Egypt fails to get on the path to progress, its current decline will not only continue, but also accelerate. And in decline, Egypt will be unstable and dangerous which will have the gravest of consequences for U.S. interests.
Colbert is director of policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). His column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, who served as a national board member for JINSA.