The Insult to Egypt

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The Insult to Egypt

Earlier this month, the Obama administration declared a set of measures that amounted to suspending a portion of the aid that it provides Egypt every year. Many commentators and analysts of the administration in Washington have critiqued the decision for a variety of reasons. Some feel it does not go far enough, while others feel it should not have happened at all. The most audaciously bizarre responses, however, came from the Egyptian scene itself, from voices that regarded the suspension as a form of insult. There is an insult involved, indeed, but it is not the suspension of aid.

The most reasonable point of view within Washington on the aid suspension seems to be this: The Obama administration, over the past three years, has had a truly abysmal way of conveying its intentions and perceptions vis-à-vis Egypt, and this is yet another example of that. It’s a fair critique, particularly considering that the basis of the aid was never about democracy promotion in the slightest. If that basis ought to change (and there are very good grounds to argue that indeed, it ought to), then the administration should have explained clearly why it had not changed it in the past.

In a roundabout sort of way, this is why many Egyptians reacted so vigorously to the news that the aid was being partially suspended. If the U.S. was so concerned with democratic norms, so the argument goes, why did it not even threaten to suspend any aid when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, arguably weakening democracy in Egypt? The argument ought to be extended – what about under Field Marshal Tantawi as well? It’s a legitimate point, but it needn’t be overstated. The numbers of deaths of unarmed civilians that took place on Mursi’s watch, at the hands of the state or Brotherhood forces, number into the dozens. The numbers of deaths of unarmed civilians that have taken place in the last three months under the interim government’s watch, carried out by state forces, number into the hundreds. Yes, there have been killings and violence perpetrated by pro-Mursi forces – but the killing of unarmed civilians by state forces under this government certainly exceeds, tremendously, that of the Mursi government.


Yet, the outrage has been phenomenal. But, it should be mentioned, not unusual. There is a sector of society in Egypt right now that sees no issue in supporting, for example, the likes of Michelle Bachmann – a rabid, right wing bigot of the American Tea Party. It is the same sector that feels that somehow, it has a right to American aid and that it is an insult to the people of Egypt if that aid is reduced or withdrawn. It is a peculiar stance, admittedly – the aid came as part of the Camp David accords that established a peace treaty with Israel.

If Egyptians support that treaty, they ought to for the terms of the treaty itself, rather than the military aid it provides Egypt. If Egyptians do not support that treaty for whatever reason, then those reasons ought not to be based on the idea of; “the aid we get from the U.S. is not enough.” Either the treaty is a good thing for Egypt, or it isn’t and the U.S. aid package should not have any bearing on that. It’s bizarre indeed, considering the Egyptian military itself seems to have not had quite the same reaction to the aid reduction. It appears that just as one can be more Catholic than the Pope, one can be more supportive of the military than the military itself.

But let’s look at that demographic a little bit further. It is the same demographic that seems to be outraged that Egypt would be criticized for its current government. The fact that hundreds of unarmed anti-government/pro-Mursi civilians have been killed in clashes and confrontations with the security forces seems not to be sufficient to warrant criticism from this demographic. Strangely, for a group that seems so insistent that international opinion is so unimportant and irrelevant, this demographic seems to care an audacious amount about what international opinion actually thinks. Hence why that demographic greets the move to spend Egyptian taxpayers’ money on lobbyists in Washington DC to “improve” Egypt’s image, in light of the aid suspension. A word to the wise: It would be a lot cheaper (and more effective) to urge the government in Cairo to restrain and reform the security apparatus. Just a thought.


American foreign policy is not predicated on the progress of human rights in Egypt. It’s predicated on its own national interests and for decades, as the administration has admitted privately and publicly, it has ignored human rights abuses in Egypt as it maintained a relationship with the government for the furthering of American national interests. Nor does the partial suspension have anything to do with trying to influence Egypt’s governance issue. The road-map that the interim government is pursuing may or may not be to the liking of the Obama administration, but it is not remotely relevant to the decision to partially suspend the aid.

The suspension is about one basic national interest of the U.S. with regards to the Arab Republic of Egypt, that is the stability of Egypt. Egypt’s stability is vital to the continuation of American foreign policy objectives in the region. Egypt’s instability is a direct threat to those same objectives. The Obama administration, quite rationally, identifies that stability in Egypt is threatened when state security forces are able to kill hundreds of unarmed people. It’s a rather easy point to understand, frankly – any counter-terrorism specialist knows that the worst way to ensure the continuation of political violence is to facilitate the creation of a sympathetic recruitment base. The killing of unarmed protesters is probably not the best of ways to ensure against that.

If Egyptians are truly concerned about the loss of this aid, then it is really quite simple to have it reinstituted. The road-map won’t need to change – the Obama administration will not intervene on such a matter. The government will also not need to stop its operations in Sinai or against violent militants in general. It simply needs to proceed without any further deaths inflicted upon unarmed civilians, perpetrated by the security services in sit-ins or protests. Preferably, one imagines, the public enquiries into the loss of life that has taken place in Egypt over the last few weeks, months, and years, during Egypt’s messy transition ought to properly assign responsibility, blame, and where appropriate, punishment. It’s fairly simple. Blood, after all, is blood.

If we are talking about preferences, though, it would be preferable that none of these shifts in policy ought to be taken to end the suspension of American aid. No Egyptian citizen should have to want their government to do what is right just to restore American aid. The real insult to Egyptians is not that the U.S. government has partially suspended aid. The real insults are that no public investigations into the disastrous loss of life during the past few weeks, months and years have taken place – and that such investigations were ever needed in the first place.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is a fellow at ISPU and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west.He was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
This article was published by Al Arabiya on October 15, 2013. Read it here.
ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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