Aid on Hold: US-built M1A1 Abrams tanks are part of the aid to Egypt the US has put on hold. Egyptians stand in front of their Army's Abrams tanks in Cairo in 2011. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, trying to carefully balance support for an important regional ally with revulsion at aggressive crackdowns on dissenters, stalled the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and military equipment to Egypt last week.
The monetary and tactical damage is likely to be minimal. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have already pledged cash sums multiple times the size of US cuts, and the number of military platforms being withheld is barely a side note compared with the larger Egyptian arsenal.
But America’s next step will be important as the US tries to manage a Middle East still grappling with the fallout from the Arab Spring and continued popular dissent.
In announcing the withheld aid, the Obama administration was careful to emphasize that it wasn’t harming the Egyptian military’s capabilities, and would be continuing counterterrorism funding and humanitarian aid. Officials also repeatedly said the aid was not being stopped, just stalled.
“We weren’t going to do anything that would put at risk our own security, or Egypt’s security, or some of our common interests,” a senior White House official said on a call with reporters. “This is not meant to be permanent, this is meant to be the opposite. It’s meant to be continually reviewed; it is already the result of a deliberate review over the course of the summer.
“You’ll notice that it’s not being presented or announced in terms of a definitive end to any specific programs,” the senior official said. “Certain things are being held until we see progress on certain things we’ve talked about.”
That’s a pragmatic approach to the situation, said Andrew Shapiro, a former assistant secretary of state and a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies.
“We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face, and deny Egypt aid that directly serves our interests as well as their interests,” he said. “However, we would like to send a signal that we’d like to see Egypt move back on the path towards open democracy.”
The transition from the military overthrowing an elected government to future democracy hasn’t been smooth. New elections aren’t expected until next spring, and the country’s military leadership continues to struggle with how to handle the opposition Muslim Brotherhood political party.
Hundreds of supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the former president and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected after longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was removed, have been killed in clashes with the military. The coup that toppled Morsi created its own quandary for the US, which began the aid debate.
That debate centered on US legal obligations to stop aid to groups that commit coups against democratically elected governments. The State Department avoided that issue by declaring that it wouldn’t categorize the regime change at all, entirely avoiding the word “coup,” allowing it to continue providing aid.
But as casualties have mounted, congressional pressure has increased on the Obama administration to make cuts beyond the withholding of F-16 fighters the administration announced in August.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and an Appropriations Committee member, responded to last week’s announcement by harshly criticizing the Egyptian military.
“Our law is clear. When there is a military coup, US aid to the government is cut off,” Leahy said in a statement. “Rather than encourage reconciliation and restore democracy as it promised, the Egyptian military has reinstituted martial law and cracked down on the Islamic opposition, which has also used violence.”
Leahy also criticized the White House for opting against cutting off all aid to Cairo.
“The [Obama] administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid,” he said. “By doing that, the message is muddled. If they want to continue aid to the Egyptian government, they should ask Congress for a waiver.”
Other senior Senate Democrats seemed pleased with the White House’s decision, though several indicated tougher action might be needed should the Egyptian military drag its feet on democratization efforts.
“I think they got it about right — for now,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said on Oct. 10. “It’s a pause. But we need to continue to monitor.”
Menendez’s panel oversees US foreign aid, meaning if he and other members are dissatisfied with the White House’s policy, they could craft legislation to alter it.
“I don’t think we will,” Menendez said.
Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he believes “it was about right.
“It sent the right message that we’re concerned whether they’re going to proceed to election or not, as they have promised,” he said.
Asked about criticism from some Republican lawmakers and foreign policy experts that the White House’s decision is not tough enough on Egyptian military officials, Levin replied: “I think it’s a strong message.”
Another senior Democrat seemed reserved to allowing the executive branch to make the decision.
“I was in favor of giving the president the authority to do a national security waiver to take selective action, which apparently he’s doing,” said SASC Vice Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
The exact value of what is being withheld isn’t clear, but Obama administration officials said it included US $260 million in cash, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment, including tanks, fighter jets and attack helicopters. The US provides Egypt with about $1.3 billion in military aid each year, second most of any recipient behind Israel.
Sources said the outlines of the plan were drawn up weeks ago, but that events in Syria and the government shutdown had delayed an announcement.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Egyptian commanding general and de facto ruler Abdel Fatah al-Sissi on Oct. 9, in a conversation a senior administration official described as “cordial” and “friendly,” to inform him of the decision. Specifically, administration officials named the F-16s, Apache helicopters, Harpoon naval missiles and M1A1 “tank kits” as being on hold.
In August, the Obama administration said that it was placing a temporary hold on shipments of four new F-16 fighters to Egypt, while contracts for 10 Apache attack helicopters and 125 M1A1 Abrams tanks were put “under review” by the US government.
The F-16s were part of a 2010 contract for 20 aircraft that was signed by Mubarak’s administration. Roughly a dozen of the warplanes tied to the contract had already been delivered.
In the meantime, the Defense Department will continue to pay contractors to build the items originally bound for Egypt. In the case of the F-16s, that means leaving the jets at Lockheed Martin’s production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, until a decision is reached.
Back in August, a US Army spokesperson confirmed to Defense News that Abrams maker General Dynamics had started delivery of the first Abrams tank kit in July to a military-run factory in Cairo, where final assembly would take place. That shipment marked the first part of a $395 million deal signed in 2011 between the US Army and General Dynamics to supply tanks to the Egyptian Army, which would bring its Abrams fleet up to 1,130 by 2016.
Egypt is hardly lacking in US-made military assets, however. Over the last two decades, the US defense industry has sold tens of billions of dollars worth of equipment to the Cairo government.
In the past decade alone, the US government has announced potential deals worth $11.4 billion, and the Egyptian military currently boasts more than 1,000 Abrams tanks, 224 F-16s and 10 Apache Longbow attack helicopters, plus thousands of US-made Humvees, M113 infantry carriers, rockets, missiles, and radio and communications equipment.
Significantly, US officials said Washington would continue to provide parts for US gear, as well as military training and education.
The Egyptian military has a poorly structured logistics and maintenance capability, so much of the tens of millions of dollars in reset and repair work is carried out by American defense contractors. In 2012, for example, General Dynamics received contracts for almost $50 million for technical support at the Egyptian Abrams tank plant.
On the same day the slowing of aid was announced, news broke that Morsi will stand trial for murder Nov. 4, accused of responsibility for the deaths of protesters in front of the presidential palace shortly before he was removed from power. That trial will likely only complicate efforts to reconcile political factions in Egypt.