Egypt Military Sees U.S. Aid Package As Key Part Of Honor-Bound Relationship

CAIRO -- Two weeks ago, while the Obama administration was seemingly dithering over its official response to the Egyptian military's seizure of power from a democratically elected president, The Washington Post published an extensive interview with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt's Army.

It offered an incisive perspective on the debate. For weeks, the American president had been castigated -- by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle -- for taking only feeble steps to punish Egypt's military. About $1.3 billion of American aid money goes to that country's armed forces every year, and under American law, those funds must be cut off if there is a military coup. Some legislators, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), argued a coup had indeed taken place, and the money should be stopped.

Instead, the administration chose to take smaller steps. It announced a "review" of its policies on Egypt, although not before declaring it had "determined that we do not have to make a determination" about whether the military's action indeed broke the law. The White House said it would suspend the transfer of four F-16s to Egypt's air force.

It was a minor gesture, decried as far too insignificant in Washington. But when Sisi spoke to the American newspaper, it was all he could talk about.

“This is not the way to deal with a patriotic military,” he declared, visibly "bristling," in the words of the interviewer.

"You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians and they won’t forget that," he went on. "You are dealing with a patriotic and an honorable military institution that does not aspire for power and the Egyptians should be supported and assisted by the free peoples of the world. Because Egyptians won’t forget who is extending their helping hands and who is turning their backs on them."

Later, he added, "In the Egyptian culture, talking a lot about aid and U.S. assistance really hurts our pride and dignity."

Today, as the administration once again weighs whether to cut the aid package to Egypt, much of the debate centers around the supposed utility of that aid: If supplying it didn't offer any leverage over the military's recent decision-making, what's the point of keeping it?"

But while the aid package today only amounts to a minuscule sum compared with that recently offered by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, experts say this analysis overlooks the human factor: As military men dedicated to the notion of honor, and with longstanding personal relationships with the American military establishment, Egypt's top generals would feel the loss in their pride more than they would in their pockets.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the dollar amount," said Joshua Stacher, an expert on the Egyptian military at Kent State University. "The aid facilitates access between Egyptian military officers for meeting and developing networks, and friendships, with American military folks."

Indeed, as Stacher and others have explained, the relationship between the American and Egyptian militaries is a highly personal one, and it reaches far beyond the diplomatic ties that presidents and State Department officials have with their counterparts in Egypt.

Egyptian officers study in the United States at U.S. Army institutions (Sisi spent 2006 at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.), and their special operators train in Tampa, Fla. The joint training operation that President Barack Obama canceled last week, Bright Star, was one of several trainings and exchanges that American troops conduct with their Egyptian partners every year.

"Egypt's generals admire militarism and the U.S. is the most militarized military on the planet," Stacher said. "So they want to be as close to them as possible. They feel like proximity to U.S. generals generates a kind of honor and respectability."

Jason Brownlee, another close observer of Egypt's military at the University of Texas in Austin, agrees that there is more at play than just funds.

"The 'honor card,' if played, might be as effective as yanking the funding," he said.

Meanwhile, as The New York Times noted on Wednesday, that relatively small aid package still plays a disproportionately important role in Egypt's military's upkeep. Without it, Egyptians would struggle to purchase high quality American-made equipment and weaponry that they count on. And their ability to fix and maintain much of the equipment already given to them -- including fleets of tanks and attack helicopters -- would suffer tremendously.

"I do not accept the premise that the United States lacks leverage over Egypt," Brownlee said. "That is only the case if we first take for granted that the White House and Congress will never muster the political will to suspend aid, supplies, and training. If they did get the gumption to do that, they would have an impact."

Of course, he adds, the question for the moment is how far the Egyptians are willing to bend to maintain that aid, or their honor, given the current crisis.

So far, at least, the answer has been: not far enough for the American government. Weeks of U.S. diplomatic wrangling couldn't prevent the Egyptian military from aggressively clearing a pair of Muslim Brotherhood sit-in sites in Cairo, an action that left more than 600 people dead in a single day. The Egyptian military has characterized its fight against the Brotherhood as an existential crisis against terrorism.

But while the 17 phone conversations that U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly had with Sisi failed to avert the sit-in clearings, seemingly indicating a lack of influence, they also highlight another important fact: Throughout an epic domestic crisis, and knowing full well what he would hear every time, Sisi always took Hagel's calls.