Skip to main content

U.S.-Egypt relations: 'Damned if you do, damned if you don't'

By Dan Merica, CNN
August 19, 2013 -- Updated 2304 GMT (0704 HKT)
Protesters and Egyptian riot police clash in Cairo on January 17, as the country awaits the results of a constitutional referendum. On January 18, the electoral commission announced the constitution had overwhelmingly been approved. Protesters and Egyptian riot police clash in Cairo on January 17, as the country awaits the results of a constitutional referendum. On January 18, the electoral commission announced the constitution had overwhelmingly been approved.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Egypt protests
Photos: Egypt protests
Photos: Egypt protests
Photos: Egypt protests
Photos: Egypt protests
Photos: Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Photos: Egypt protests
Photos: Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
Egypt protests
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Experts say relations between the U.S. and Egypt are more complicated than military aid
  • Expert says cutting off aid will do little to change Egypt regime's behavior
  • Saudi Arabia has promised to make up for any aid that the U.S. cuts
  • Egypt could retaliate to cutting aid by changing U.S. preferential access to Suez Canal

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama postponed military exercises with Egypt last week due to intensifying violence between the military and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, and warned of potential "further steps."

Much of the discussion since has focused on the fate of $1.2 billion in American military aid, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated on Monday that "every aspect" of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is on the table.

Obama warns of further steps in Egypt

But what does that mean exactly and how much leverage does the United States have on Egyptian affairs? Beyond military support, would holding up financing for economic programs have an impact? What about immigration and visa programs? Would any new action on these issues change the behavior of the Egyptian military?

More than half of all Americans in a new poll believe the United States should halt military aid. But experts tell CNN that relations are complex.

"The United States is kind of in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation," said Tarek Radwan, associate director for research at the Atlantic Council.

TIME.com: U.S. military aid to Egypt: An IV drip, with side effects

What does the U.S. want?

For Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, the question really is: What does Washington want to accomplish?

"If you are trying to change the decision-making process of the Egyptian military -- that is very hard to do right now because they believe they are locked in an existential struggle. If what you are trying to do is demonstrate our resolve to the rest of the world and people looking on, that is another issue."

Egypt on edge amid questions of U.S. aid

Though Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says military assistance is pretty much the only card the United States can play to enforce its call for an end to violence and quick return to civilian rule.

"If we mean what we say, than the next step is to suspend our military aid until the Egyptians mean what they say -- which is that they are looking for a political compromise," Coleman said.

Not a one-sided relationship

Military jets, helicopters and other equipment provided by the United States supports a trilateral peace in the region involving Egypt, Jordan and Israel, which is the largest recipient of American military aid, and related strategic advantages.

For instance, the United States has been granted preferential use of the Suez Canal -- an economic hub that connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea -- and overflight rights, which gives the U.S. military the ability to fly over Egypt on the way to bases in the region.

But would Egypt respond to cuts in its aid by restricting access to the Suez and its air space?

Unlikely, said Coleman and Radwan.

"The Suez Canal is extremely important. It is important to international commerce," Wardwan said, adding that he doubts "these privileges will be changed" if aid is suspended.

Will cutting aid do anything?

The Obama administration has decided to not call the military's ouster of Morsy a coup, which would require an end to military assistance under U.S. law.

But Sen. John McCain, a leading authority on military matters in Congress, recently returned from Egypt. He said turning off aid in response to the military crackdown on protesters is more than necessary now.

"We have no credibility. We do have influence, but when you don't use that influence, then you do not have that influence," McCain said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

About half of the money for military assistance this year -- reduced somewhat by budget cuts in the United States -- has been delivered, according to the State Department. Egypt gets another $250 million for economic programs.

And a new Pew Research Center survey of 1,000 adults nationwide conducted Thursday through Sunday showed that 51% of Americans believed it was better for Washington to cut off military aid to put pressure on the government, while 26% said it was better to continue aid to maintain influence.

With such complexity in the region -- from trading rights to diplomatic advantages -- would cutting aid be an effective way to change policy in Egypt?

Likely, no, said the experts -- particularly because Saudi Arabia has said it would consider matching the U.S. assistance if the administration does decide to cut it.

"Our Congress is not about to compete with that amount of money in Egypt," Coleman said." (The Saudis) have deep pockets and they are ready to put them in Egypt's disposal."

There is little agreement among experts over whether such a cut would make any difference.

"Whether or not changing the aid policy is good for the U.S. in the long run, my answer to that is yes," Radwan said. "If we diversify our engagement with Egypt and deepen it beyond the rhetoric we hear, not only the Obama administration, but any administration after would have for more policy flexibility."

Alterman, on the other hand, sounded a warning.

"It is easier to cut things than resume them," he concluded. "What you may have instead of sending a warning shot that gets Egyptians to change their behavior, you may have a spiraling down in our relations."

CNN's Holly Yan contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Egypt
Visit CNN Arabic for full election news and updates in Arabic.
May 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
CNN's Reza Sayah explains Egypt's presidential election.
May 26, 2014 -- Updated 1655 GMT (0055 HKT)
Minute changes by Egypt's next leader may not be sufficient to bring genuine stability, writes H.A. Hellyer.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0359 GMT (1159 HKT)
Supporters of Egyptian leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi (portrait) attend a campaign meeting in Cairo.
Both presidential candidates have made lofty promises. But has either offered specifics on how the economy?
June 8, 2014 -- Updated 0806 GMT (1606 HKT)
CNN's Reza Sayah profiles the leading contender in Egypt's presidential election, ex army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0809 GMT (1609 HKT)
Hamdeen Sabahi is considered a heavy underdog in the race for Egypt's presidency, but he's sure he's going to win.
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
A court in Cairo sentences ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to three years in prison for embezzlement.
May 22, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
An Egyptian man waits for tourists to take them on camel rides at the Giza pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo on February 14, 2011.
Instead of focusing on antiquities, Egypt's new "We miss you" video features dancers, malls and ritzy hotels.
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Former Arab League head Amre Moussa says presidential favorite Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is right to stand up to "terrorists."
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Can music heal the rift of revolution and conflict in Egypt? CNN's Reza Sayah meets the Egyptian band trying.
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 2120 GMT (0520 HKT)
Egypt's former military chief doesn't mince words when he describes what would happen if he wins the presidency.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0937 GMT (1737 HKT)
Are threats of sexual violence an everyday reality for women in Cairo?
March 24, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour sends letter to the family of jailed Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy.
March 9, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
CNN's Sara Sidner talks about stepping in for Al Jazeera reporters since they have been barred from working in Egypt.
March 15, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
How are the Arab Spring nations faring? What successes can they boast and what challenges await?
ADVERTISEMENT