Can a Threat to Cut Aid Save Egypt?

It may be too late to save Egypt. Without a major change in the direction by General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi and his civilian front men, Egypt will soon revert to military rule and a campaign of repression, if not annihilation, of the Muslim Brotherhood and suppression of democratic voices under one party rule. In other words, a reprise of 1952-54.

Only an intelligent use of military aid suspension has any hope of reversing the slide into an abyss.

The $1.3 billion in annual U.S. foreign military funding (FMF), representing approximately one-fourth of the Egyptian defense budget, buys major U.S. weapons systems and support. Many weapons in their inventory are produced or assembled in Egypt under license from Italian small arms to French jet engines to the American M1A1 battle tank. The government-owned, military managed Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI) has some nine factories turning out military and civilian goods. And the military has tentacles deep into the Egyptian economy from land development to olive oil to cement. Indeed, estimates of the military's control of the Egyptian economy range from 20 to 40 percent. These business ventures provide lucrative retirement jobs and nest eggs for the generals.

Chaos is bad for business. And while an IMF loan denial would hurt the economy and the military's share, a cut off of U.S. aid would even more directly impact on the military. In light of Egypt's strategic importance from preferred passage for U.S. warships through the Suez Canal to easy over flight and the peace treaty with Israel, any move that would alienate the military deserves serious consideration. But upholding our democratic values, defending human rights and having a president's words be taken seriously matter very much also.

General al-Sisi has so far brushed off threats of an aid cutoff and may not pay any more attention to renewed pressure than he did to American, European and Arab exhortations. So why should he now?

Because he will see action behind our so far hollow words.

We should implement a dual track approach of high profile easily reversible public announcements with short term impacts and another track of very private discussions of more serious long term actions. The public moves would be to suspend all military hardware and spare parts deliveries, not just the four F-16s. This would send a strong message to the military but not have an immediate impact on operational capability. Some 200 of the over 1100 M1A1 tanks are in storage and could be cannibalized to keep the rest in service. The Egyptian Air Force has over 200 F-16s and can operate for some time without resorting to cannibalization. General al-Sisi should be told that the suspensions will be lifted only when it is clear that his announced plan and timetable for a new constitution and free and fair elections with Muslim Brotherhood participation is on track. If the announced schedule holds, the suspensions will not have a serious impact on readiness.

The second track should come in the form of "a message from a very high level representative who the general may respect," said recently retired CENTOM commander, General James Matis, USMC or former CIA Director, General David Petraeus. The message would be that continuing down the road to dictatorship and repression will result in cancelling all military licenses and logistic support contracts and bringing U.S. contractor personnel home. And we would encourage our allies to do the same. The result would be a dramatic decline in Egyptian military capability and in industrial revenues to the armed forces.

Is this too tough? Not if we want to see a semblance of representative and responsible government in the largest and most important Arab nation. Not if we want to encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to give peaceful means another try rather than affiliate with al Qaeda. Not if we do not want a repeat of Algeria or Syria in Egypt. Not if we want to encourage peaceful democratic change in the Middle East. Not if we do not want the world to conclude that American law and American diplomacy are meaningless and impotent.

And not if we do not care to be laughed at the next time we speak of supporting the rule of law and democratic regimes.