With much fanfare, the Obama administration announced that it was suspending most of the 1.5 billion in financial aid provided to Egypt. The motivation behind the move was to compel Egypt's military leaders to end their crack down on Morsi and his followers and to move the country toward a truly democratic form of government which Egypt never had. Regardless of the validity of these intentions, the decision will not achieve any beneficial result and is likely to have severe adverse consequences for the United States.
First, Washington's decision on aid will not change the military ruler's position on the Muslim Brotherhood. To underscore this point, the day after the announcement of aid reduction, the Egyptian government intensified its political crackdown against Islamists. The Ministry of Social Solidarity announced the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood. And a court fixed a November 4 trial date for Morsi on charges of inciting violence against protestors. The message to Washington was crystal clear: You will accomplish nothing with your cutoff of aid.
Egypt's rulers were willing to poke a stick in Washington's eye because they have other sources of aid. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait are strongly siding with Egypt's rulers. Providing more than words, they, particularly the Saudis, have provided billions in aid to the military rulers, eclipsing what the U.S. was providing. They have also made it clear that they will pick up any shortfall.
The leaders of these Arab Gulf states are taking this action because they view the Muslim Brotherhood as a regional threat that would destabilize their own regimes. The Brotherhood originated in Egypt. In their view, cutting it off at its source will weaken the movement throughout the Middle East.
Second, the United States decision will be ineffectual because it sends a mixed signal. We are cutting off some but not all aid. However, it is unclear what is being halted. By one account, all assistance is being suspended except aid targeted for counterterrorism and cooperation with Israel. According to the Washington Post, another U.S. official, said that only big ticket items like F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters are being suspended and that "we aspire to maintain a robust military and diplomatic partnership with Egypt." The New York Times reported that Senator Patrick Leahy said, "The Administration is trying to have it both ways by suspending some and continuing other aid...By doing that, the message is muddled" in a statement. In view of this ambiguity, it is not surprising that Egypt's rulers are not fazed by the announcement.
More troublesome is that this decision will be costly to the United States. Since the 1978 Camp David accords, we have had significant influence in Egypt which was viewed as a staunch American ally and one of the cornerstones of our Middle East policy. We are now at a critical juncture in our relations with the Arab world. The Iraqi government is openly hostile to Washington. Syria is in flames and we were close to launching missiles against Assad. Saudi Arabia is demonstrating increasing hostility to Washington.
Many Egyptians are furious at the United States for this decision. Colonel Ahmed Ali, a spokesman for the Egyptian military, has threatened a removal of the special access which U.S. ships have to the Suez Canal, a former Constitutional Court Justice, said Egypt would be better off without any U.S. aid.
By losing our influence with Cairo, the United States is on a path to becoming marginalized in this critical part of the world. Leaders in other American allies, including Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are frustrated by Washington's unwillingness to assist itself in the Middle East. They see the Egypt aid cut off as another example that Washington is withdrawing from the Middle East. Unquestionably, we are losing our role as a dominant outside power. More than that, we may not even be a player of any consequence.
Finally, and perhaps most important, we are opening the door for China and Russia to become arms suppliers to Egypt. In the case of Russia, Putin will be eager to resurrect Russia's relationship with Egypt. For decades, Moscow was the dominant foreign power in both Cairo and Damascus. That was the old Middle East before the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Syria remained in the Russian orbit but Mubarak steered clear of Russia.
All of that may now change. Putin, the opportunist, is seeking to expand his influence everywhere. The United States has just provided him with an opportunity. Putin would have no hesitation in supplying arms to compensate for those Washington has canceled.
Likewise, China, which is flexing its muscles throughout the world, may also try to move into the door Washington has left ajar by supplying arms to Cairo. Now that China has become the world's largest oil importer, relations with the Middle East are a priority. Beijing has already inked energy deals with Iran. While Egypt is not an oil exporter, it is a dominant force in the Arab world. Good relations with Egypt could pay dividends elsewhere such as the oil rich Gulf.
Thus, the U.S.' decision to cut off aid may be a harbinger of big power competition in the Middle East. This would be a dreadful development further destabilizing the powder keg in this part of the world.