US should use Egypt military aid to force crucial reforms; Angus King should lend his support

In August, Maine Senator Angus King voted to table an amendment that would have defined the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as a coup d’etat. The bill would have suspended military aid to Egypt, since it is prohibited under U.S. law to directly support a government that has carried out a coup d’etat.

King recognized two reasons for continuing military aid to Egypt.

“Egypt is a crucial treaty partner of Israel. It has been stable for 25 years. It’s been an important part of the stability of the Middle East. … Then, No. 2, we want to have some influence about what’s going on in Egypt, and the way to achieve influence is not to cut off aid but to maintain it at least for the present time.”

Soon, the Obama administration will decide the status of military aid to Egypt. Secretary of State John Kerry must certify Egypt has taken steps to democracy for aid to resume after being partially suspended in the fall.

On Monday, 529 Egyptians were sentenced to death in the largest capital punishment ruling in Egyptian history and has been called “unconscionable” by the State Department. After this and other violations of human rights, a military coup d’etat, and a crackdown on independent media, King should publicly urge Kerry to not certify Egypt has made steps to democracy, and tie any future military aid to political reform. In the months since August, King’s two justifications for military aid to Egypt have been proven to be incorrect.

On his first point, Egypt has received American aid since signing the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel. Yet, a review of Egyptian weapons purchases shows a focus on conventional warfare, not guerrilla-style warfare that is necessary to fight militants in the Sinai and protect Israel. Most of the weapons purchases go to F-16’s, M1A1 tanks and Apache helicopters. With these weapons, Egypt is equipped to fight Germany in World War II, not a guerrilla war in the Sinai.

Some would argue that as a reaction to increased militancy in the Sinai, we should increase military aid in order to secure Israel. On the contrary, military aid to Egypt has a negative impact on Israeli security. Human rights violations by the Egyptian military have only fueled the growth of militants in the Sinai. Since August, militants have targeted civilians on the border and blown up Israeli oil pipelines. So long as the Egyptian government continues this crackdown, an arms package would only redouble the efforts of these groups who seriously endanger Israeli security.

Second, King and I both agree we must maintain influence with Egypt. But since the military coup, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has attempted to maintain influence by calling former Egyptian General and Presidential candidate Abdul Fattah al-Sisi more than 25 times, urging him to implement reforms. Influence goes beyond rhetoric; influence relies on substantive change. The Israeli border is unstable; political rights have regressed; and the military has shown no signs of change.

It is time for a different strategy.

If Kerry, with the support of King, tie military aid to clear and measurable goals for the Egyptian government, including a respect for human rights, free press and political inclusion, our aid would have greater influence and nudge necessary reforms.

When al-Sisi, who lead the coup d’etat, announced his candidacy, he vowed to strengthen the military and fight Islamists in the Sinai. Threatening to suspend military funding until political reforms are made would create serious leverage for our negotiating position. Facing a tradeoff between political reforms and losing one of his military’s largest sources of funding, it would be painfully obvious that the only decision would be to make changes that would help his domestic credibility in the long run.

Some would argue that a Russian arms package could replace American aid, but technical details show if this were to happen, the Egyptian military would crumble. Roughly one third of our aid goes to follow on support, and another third goes to upgrade previously existing U.S. equipment. Even assuming the last third of our aid would be replaced (not likely, given past experiences), the arms package would be ineffective and inoperable with almost every other Arab nation. Ending military aid would essentially render Egypt’s entire military arsenal useless, and existing security operations would operate on a shoestring budget.

In short, if Secretary Kerry were to not certify that Egypt has taken steps to democracy, the Egyptian government would implement reforms that protect the long term stability of Egypt, Israel, and the United States.

On the other hand, if Secretary Kerry were to re-certify aid to Egypt, outrage over human rights violations like the mass sentencing on Monday would be directed at the United States, putting our national security at risk.

I urge Senator King to publicly recommend that Secretary of State John Kerry not certify that steps to democratic reform have been made in Egypt, and tie any further military aid to political progress.

Senator King said that we should maintain military aid to Egypt, “at least for the present time”. Since August, the political and security situation have gotten worse in Egypt. With the expected election of al-Sisi, there is no better time than now to maximize diplomatic influence and create serious reform in Egypt.

Justin Lynch

About Justin Lynch

Justin Lynch is the former president of the University of Maine International Affairs Association. A former BDN employee, he now lives in Washington, D.C.